Monday, 30 July 2012

Schlei Fiord

Chapter VI: Schlei Fiord

I MAKE no apology for having described these early days in some detail. It is no wonder that their trivialities are as vividly before me as the colours of earth and sea in this enchanting corner of the world. For every trifle, sordid or picturesque, was relevant; every scrap of talk a link; every passing mood critical for good or ill. So slight indeed were the determining causes that changed my autumn holiday into an undertaking the most momentous I have ever approached.

Two days more preceded the change. On the first, the southwesterly wind still holding, we sallied forth into Augustenburg Fiord, 'to practise smartness in a heavy thresh,' as Davies put it. It was the day of dedication for those disgusting oilskins, immured in whose stiff and odorous angles, I felt distressfully cumbersome; a day of proof indeed for me, for heavy squalls swept incessantly over the loch, and Davies, at my own request, gave me no rest. Backwards and forwards we tacked, blustering into coves and out again, reefing and unreefing, now stung with rain, now warmed with sun, but never with time to breathe or think.

I wrestled with intractable ropes, slaves if they could be subdued, tyrants if they got the upper hand; creeping, craning, straining, I made the painful round of the deck, while Davies, hatless and tranquil, directed my blundering movements.

'Now take the helm and try steering in a hard breeze to windward. It's the finest sport on earth.'

So I grappled with the niceties of that delicate craft; smarting eyes, chafed hands, and dazed brain all pressed into the service, whilst Davies, taming the ropes the while, shouted into my ear the subtle mysteries of the art; that fidgeting ripple in the luff of the mainsail, and the distant rattle from the hungry jib—signs that they are starved of wind and must be given more; the heavy list and wallow of the hull, the feel of the wind on your cheek instead of your nose, the broader angle of the burgee at the masthead—signs that they have too much, and that she is sagging recreantly to leeward instead of fighting to windward. He taught me the tactics for meeting squalls, and the way to press your advantage when they are defeated—the iron hand in the velvet glove that the wilful tiller needs if you are to gain your ends with it; the exact set of the sheets necessary to get the easiest and swiftest play of the hull—all these things and many more I struggled to apprehend, careless for the moment as to whether they were worth knowing, but doggedly set on knowing them. Needless to say, I had no eyes for beauty. The wooded inlets we dived into gave a brief respite from wind and spindrift, but called into use the lead and the centre-board tackle—two new and cumbrous complexities. Davies's passion for intricate navigation had to be sated even in these secure and tideless waters.

'Let's get in as near as we can—you stand by the lead,' was his formula; so I made false casts, tripped up in the slack, sent rivers of water up my sleeves, and committed all the other gaucheries that beginners in the art commit, while the sand showed whiter beneath the keel, till Davies regretfully drew off and shouted: 'Ready about, centre-plate down,' and I dashed down to the trappings of that diabolical contrivance, the only part of the Dulcibella's equipment that I hated fiercely to the last. It had an odious habit when lowered of spouting jets of water through its chain-lead on to the cabin floor. One of my duties was to gag it with cotton-waste, but even then its choking gurgle was a most uncomfortable sound in your dining-room. In a minute the creek would be behind us and we would be thumping our stem into the short hollow waves of the fiord, and lurching through spray and rain for some point on the opposite shore. Of our destination and objects, if we had any, I knew nothing. At the northern end of the fiord, just before we turned, Davies had turned dreamy in the most exasperating way, for I was steering at the time and in mortal need of sympathetic guidance, if I was to avoid a sudden jibe. As though continuing aloud some internal debate, he held a onesided argument to the effect that it was no use going farther north. Ducks, weather, and charts figured in it, but I did not follow the pros and cons. I only know that we suddenly turned and began to 'battle' south again. At sunset we were back once more in the same quiet pool among the trees and fields of Als Sound, a wondrous peace succeeding the turmoil. Bruised and sodden, I was extricating myself from my oily prison, and later was tasting (though not nearly yet in its perfection) the unique exultation that follows such a day, when, glowing all over, deliciously tired and pleasantly sore, you eat what seems ambrosia, be it only tinned beef; and drink nectar, be it only distilled from terrestrial hops or coffee berries, and inhale as culminating luxury balmy fumes which even the happy Homeric gods knew naught of.

On the following morning, the 30th, a joyous shout of 'Nor'-west wind' sent me shivering on deck, in the small hours, to handle rain-stiff canvas and cutting chain. It was a cloudy, unsettled day, but still enough after yesterday's boisterous ordeal. We retraced our way past Sonderburg, and thence sailed for a faint line of pale green on the far south-western horizon. It was during this passage that an incident occurred, which, slight as it was, opened my eyes to much.

A flight of wild duck crossed our bows at some little distance, a wedge-shaped phalanx of craning necks and flapping wings. I happened to be steering while Davies verified our course below; but I called him up at once, and a discussion began about our chances of sport. Davies was gloomy over them.

'Those fellows at Satrup were rather doubtful,' he said. 'There are plenty of ducks, but I made out that it's not easy for strangers to get shooting. The whole country's so very civilized; it's not wild enough, is it?'

He looked at me. I had no very clear opinion. It was anything but wild in one sense, but there seemed to be wild enough spots for ducks. The shore we were passing appeared to be bordered by lonely marshes, though a spacious champaign showed behind. If it were not for the beautiful places we had seen, and my growing taste for our way of seeing them, his disappointing vagueness would have nettled me more than it did. For, after all, he had brought me out loaded with sporting equipment under a promise of shooting.

'Bad weather is what we want for ducks,' he said; 'but I'm afraid we're in the wrong place for them. Now, if it was the North Sea, among those Frisian islands—' His tone was timid and interrogative, and I felt at once that he was sounding me as to some unpalatable plan whose nature began to dawn on me.

He stammered on through a sentence or two about 'wildness' and 'nobody to interfere with you,' and then I broke in: 'You surely don't want to leave the Baltic?'

'Why not?' said he, staring into the compass.

'Hang it, man!' I returned, tartly, 'here we are in October, the summer over, and the weather gone to pieces. We're alone in a cockle-shell boat, at a time when every other yacht of our size is laying up for the winter. Luckily, we seem to have struck an ideal cruising-ground, with a wide choice of safe fiords and a good prospect of ducks, if we choose to take a little trouble about them. You can't mean to waste time and run risks' (I thought of the torn leaf in the log-book) 'in a long voyage to those forbidding haunts of yours in the North Sea.'

'It's not very long,' said Davies, doggedly. 'Part of it's canal, and the rest is quite safe if you're careful. There's plenty of sheltered water, and it's not really necessary—'

'What's it all for?' I interrupted, impatiently. 'We haven't tried for shooting here yet. You've no notion, have you, of getting the boat back to England this autumn?'

'England?' he muttered. 'Oh, I don't much care.' Again his vagueness jarred on me; there seemed to be some bar between us, invisible and insurmountable. And, after all, what was I doing here? Roughing it in a shabby little yacht, utterly out of my element, with a man who, a week ago, was nothing to me, and who now was a tiresome enigma. Like swift poison the old morbid mood in which I left London spread through me. All I had learnt and seen slipped away; what I had suffered remained. I was on the point of saying something which might have put a precipitate end to our cruise, but he anticipated me.

'I'm awfully sorry,' he broke out, 'for being such a selfish brute. I don't know what I was thinking about. You're a brick to join me in this sort of life, and I'm afraid I'm an infernally bad host. Of course this is just the place to cruise. I forgot about the scenery, and all that. Let's ask about the ducks here. As you say, we're sure to get sport if we worry and push a bit. We must be nearly there now—yes, there's the entrance. Take the helm, will you?'

He sprang up the mast like a monkey, and gazed over the land from the cross-trees. I looked up at my enigma and thanked Providence I had not spoken; for no one could have resisted his frank outburst of good nature. Yet it occurred to me that, considering the conditions of our life, our intimacy was strangely slow in growth. I had no clue yet as to where his idiosyncrasies began and his self ended, and he, I surmised, was in the same stage towards me. Otherwise I should have pressed him further now, for I felt convinced that there was some mystery in his behaviour which I had not yet accounted for. However, light was soon to break.

I could see no sign of the entrance he had spoken of, and no wonder, for it is only eighty yards wide, though it leads to a fiord thirty miles long. All at once we were jolting in a tumble of sea, and the channel grudgingly disclosed itself, stealing between marshes and meadows and then broadening to a mere, as at Ekken. We anchored close to the mouth, and not far from a group of vessels of a type that afterwards grew very familiar to me. They were sailing-barges, something like those that ply in the Thames, bluff-bowed, high-sterned craft of about fifty tons, ketch-rigged, and fitted with lee-boards, very light spars, and a long tip-tilted bowsprit. (For the future I shall call them 'galliots'.) Otherwise the only sign of life was a solitary white house—the pilot's house, the chart told us—close to the northern point of entrance. After tea we called on the pilot. Patriarchally installed before a roaring stove, in the company of a buxom bustling daughter-in-law and some rosy grandchildren, we found a rotund and rubicund person, who greeted us with a hoarse roar of welcome in German, which instantly changed, when he saw us, to the funniest broken English, spoken with intense relish and pride. We explained ourselves and our mission as well as we could through the hospitable interruptions caused by beer and the strains of a huge musical box, which had been set going in honour of our arrival. Needless to say, I was read like a book at once, and fell into the part of listener.

'Yes, yes,' he said, 'all right. There is plenty ducks, but first we will drink a glass beer; then we will shift your ship, captain—she lies not good there.' (Davies started up in a panic, but was waved back to his beer.) 'Then we will drink together another glass beer; then we will talk of ducks—no, then we will kill ducks—that is better. Then we will have plenty glasses beer.'

This was an unexpected climax, and promised well for our prospects. And the programme was fully carried out. After the beer our host was packed briskly by his daughter into an armour of woollen gaiters, coats, and mufflers, topped with a worsted helmet, which left nothing of his face visible but a pair of twinkling eyes. Thus equipped, he led the way out of doors, and roared for Hans and his gun, till a great gawky youth, with high cheek-bones and a downy beard, came out from the yard and sheepishly shook our hands.

Together we repaired to the quay, where the pilot stood, looking like a genial ball of worsted, and bawled hoarse directions while we shifted the Dulcibella to a berth on the farther shore close to the other vessels. We returned with our guns, and the interval for refreshments followed. It was just dusk when we sallied out again, crossed a stretch of bog-land, and took up strategic posts round a stagnant pond. Hans had been sent to drive, and the result was a fine mallard and three ducks. It was true that all fell to the pilot's gun, perhaps owing to Hans' filial instinct and his parent's canny egotism in choosing his own lair, or perhaps it was chance; but the shooting-party was none the less a triumphal success. It was celebrated with beer and music as before, while the pilot, an infant on each podgy knee, discoursed exuberantly on the glories of his country and the Elysian content of his life. 'There is plenty beer, plenty meat, plenty money, plenty ducks,' summed up his survey.

It may have been fancy, but Davies, though he had fits and starts of vivacity, seemed very inattentive, considering that we were sitting at the feet of so expansive an oracle. It was I who elicited most of the practical information—details of time, weather, and likely places for shooting, with some shrewd hints as to the kind of people to conciliate. Whatever he thought of me, I warmed with sympathy towards the pilot, for he assumed that we had done with cruising for the year, and thought us mad enough as it was to have been afloat so long, and madder still to intend living on 'so little a ship' when we could live on land with beer and music handy. I was tempted to raise the North Sea question, just to watch Davies under the thunder of rebukes which would follow. But I refrained from a wish to be tender with him, now that all was going so well. The Frisian Islands were an extravagant absurdity now. I did not even refer to them as we pulled back to the Dulcibella, after swearing eternal friendship with the good pilot and his family.

Davies and I turned in good friends that night—or rather I should say that I turned in, for I left him sucking an empty pipe and aimlessly fingering a volume of Mahan; and once when I woke in the night I felt somehow that his bunk was empty and that he was there in the dark cabin, dreaming.

Saturday, 28 July 2012

Wanted, A North Wind

Chapter V: Wanted, A North Wind

NOTHING disturbed my rest that night, so adaptable is youth and so masterful is nature. At times I was remotely aware of a threshing of rain and a humming of wind, with a nervous kicking of the little hull, and at one moment I dreamt I saw an apparition by candle-light of Davies, clad in pyjamas and huge top-boots, grasping a misty lantern of gigantic proportions. But the apparition mounted the ladder and disappeared, and I passed to other dreams.

A blast in my ear, like the voice of fifty trombones, galvanized me into full consciousness. The musician, smiling and tousled, was at my bedside, raising a foghorn to his lips with deadly intention. 'It's a way we have in the Dulcibella,' he said, as I started up on one elbow. 'I didn't startle you much, did I?' he added.

'Well, I like the mattinata better than the cold douche,' I answered, thinking of yesterday.

'Fine day and magnificent breeze!' he answered. My sensations this morning were vastly livelier than those of yesterday at the same hour. My limbs were supple again and my head clear. Not even the searching wind could mar the ecstasy of that plunge down to smooth, seductive sand, where I buried greedy fingers and looked through a medium blue, with that translucent blue, fairy-faint and angel-pure, that you see in perfection only in the heart of ice. Up again to sun, wind, and the forest whispers from the shore; down just once more to see the uncouth anchor stabbing the sand's soft bosom with one rusty fang, deaf and inert to the Dulcibella's puny efforts to drag him from his prey. Back, holding by the cable as a rusty clue from heaven to earth, up to that bourgeois little maiden's bows; back to breakfast, with an appetite not to be blunted by condensed milk and somewhat passé bread. An hour later we had dressed the Dulcibella for the road, and were foaming into the grey void of yesterday, now a noble expanse of wind-whipped blue, half surrounded by distant hills, their every outline vivid in the rain-washed air.

I cannot pretend that I really enjoyed this first sail into the open, though I was keenly anxious to do so. I felt the thrill of those forward leaps, heard that persuasive song the foam sings under the lee-bow, saw the flashing harmonies of sea and sky; but sensuous perception was deadened by nervousness. The yacht looked smaller than ever outside the quiet fiord. The song of the foam seemed very near, the wave crests aft very high. The novice in sailing clings desperately to the thoughts of sailors—effective, prudent persons, with a typical jargon and a typical dress, versed in local currents and winds. I could not help missing this professional element. Davies, as he sat grasping his beloved tiller, looked strikingly efficient in his way, and supremely at home in his surroundings; but he looked the amateur through and through, as with one hand, and (it seemed) one eye, he wrestled with a spray-splashed chart half unrolled on the deck beside him. All his casual ways returned to me—his casual talk and that last adventurous voyage to the Baltic, and the suspicions his reticence had aroused.

'Do you see a monument anywhere?' he said, all at once' and, before I could answer; 'We must take another reef.' He let go of the tiller and relit his pipe, while the yacht rounded sharply to, and in a twinkling was tossing head to sea with loud claps of her canvas and passionate jerks of her boom, as the wind leapt on its quarry, now turning to hay, with redoubled force. The sting of spray in my eyes and the Babel of noise dazed me; but Davies, with a pull on the fore-sheet, soothed the tormented little ship, and left her coolly sparring with the waves while he shortened sail and puffed his pipe. An hour later the narrow vista of Als Sound was visible, with quiet old Sonderburg sunning itself on the island shore, and the Dybbol heights towering above—the Dybbol of bloody memory; scene of the last desperate stand of the Danes in '64, ere the Prussians wrested the two fair provinces from them.

'It's early to anchor, and I hate towns,' said Davies, as one section of a lumbering pontoon bridge opened to give us passage. But I was firm on the need for a walk, and got my way on condition that I bought stores as well, and returned in time to admit of further advance to a 'quiet anchorage'. Never did I step on the solid earth with stranger feelings, partly due to relief from confinement, partly to that sense of independence in travelling, which, for those who go down to the sea in small ships, can make the foulest coal-port in Northumbria seem attractive. And here I had fascinating Sonderburg, with its broad-eaved houses of carved woodwork, each fresh with cleansing, yet reverend with age; its fair-haired Viking-like men, and rosy, plain-faced women, with their bullet foreheads and large mouths; Sonderburg still Danish to the core under its Teuton veneer. Crossing the bridge I climbed the Dybbol—dotted with memorials of that heroic defence—and thence could see the wee form and gossamer rigging of the Dulcibella on the silver ribbon of the Sound, and was reminded by the sight that there were stores to be bought. So I hurried down again to the old quarter and bargained over eggs and bread with a dear old lady, pink as a débutante, made a patriotic pretence of not understanding German, and called in her strapping son, whose few words of English, being chiefly nautical slang picked up on a British trawler, were peculiarly useless for the purpose. Davies had tea ready when I came aboard again, and, drinking it on deck, we proceeded up the sheltered Sound, which, in spite of its imposing name, was no bigger than an inland river, only the hosts of rainbow jelly-fish reminding us that we were threading a highway of ocean. There is no rise and fall of tide in these regions to disfigure the shore with mud. Here was a shelving gravel bank; there a bed of whispering rushes; there again young birch trees growing to the very brink, each wearing a stocking of bright moss and setting its foot firmly in among golden leaves and scarlet fungus.

Davies was preoccupied, but he lighted up when I talked of the Danish war. 'Germany's a thundering great nation,' he said; 'I wonder if we shall ever fight her.' A little incident that happened after we anchored deepened the impression left by this conversation. We crept at dusk into a shaded back-water, where our keel almost touched the gravel bed. Opposite us on the Alsen shore there showed, clean-cut against the sky, the spire of a little monument rising from a leafy hollow.

'I wonder what that is,' I said. It was scarcely a minute's row in the dinghy, and when the anchor was down we sculled over to it. A bank of loam led to gorse and bramble. Pushing aside some branches we came to a slender Gothic memorial in grey stone, inscribed with bas-reliefs of battle scenes, showing Prussians forcing a landing in boats and Danes resisting with savage tenacity. In the failing light we spelt out an inscription: 'Den bei dem Meeres-Uebergange und der Eroberung von Alsen am 29. Juni 1864 heldenmüthig gefallenen zum ehrenden Gedächtniss.' 'To the honoured memory of those who died heroically at the invasion and storming of Alsen.' I knew the German passion for commemoration; I had seen similar memorials on Alsatian battlefields, and several on the Dybbol only that afternoon; but there was something in the scene, the hour, and the circumstances, which made this one seem singularly touching. As for Davies, I scarcely recognized him; his eyes flashed and filled with tears as he glanced from the inscription to the path we had followed and the water beyond. 'It was a landing in boats, I suppose,' he said, half to himself. 'I wonder they managed it. What does heldenmüthig mean?'—'Heroically.'—Heldenmüthig gefallenen,' he repeated, under his breath, lingering on each syllable. He was like a schoolboy reading of Waterloo.

Our conversation at dinner turned naturally on war, and in naval warfare I found I had come upon Davies's literary hobby. I had not hitherto paid attention to the medley on our bookshelf, but I now saw that, besides a Nautical Almanack and some dilapidated Sailing Directions, there were several books on the cruises of small yachts, and also some big volumes crushed in anyhow or lying on the top. Squinting painfully at them I saw Mahan's Life of Nelson, Brassey's Naval Annual, and others.

'It's a tremendously interesting subject,' said Davies, pulling down (in two pieces) a volume of Mahan's Influence of Sea Power.

Dinner flagged (and froze) while he illustrated a point by reference to the much-thumbed pages. He was very keen, and not very articulate. I knew just enough to be an intelligent listener, and, though hungry, was delighted to hear him talk.

'I'm not boring you, am I?' he said, suddenly.

'I should think not,' I protested. 'But you might just have a look at the chops.'

They had indeed been crying aloud for notice for some minutes, and drew candid attention to their neglect when they appeared. The diversion they caused put Davies out of vein. I tried to revive the subject, but he was reserved and diffident.

The untidy bookshelf reminded me of the logbook, and when Davies had retired with the crockery to the forecastle, I pulled the ledger down and turned over the leaves. It was a mass of short entries, with cryptic abbreviations, winds, tides, weather, and courses appearing to predominate. The voyage from Dover to Ostend was dismissed in two lines: 'Under way 7 p.m., wind W.S.W. moderate; West Hinder 5 a.m., outside all banks Ostend 11 a.m.' The Scheldt had a couple of pages very technical and staccato in style. Inland Holland was given a contemptuous summary, with some half-hearted allusions to windmills, and so on, and a caustic word or two about boys, paint, and canal smells.

At Amsterdam technicalities began again, and a brisker tone pervaded the entries, which became progressively fuller as the writer cruised on the Frisian coast. He was clearly in better spirits, for here and there were quaint and laboured efforts to describe nature out of material which, as far as I could judge, was repellent enough to discourage the most brilliant and observant of writers; with an occasional note of a visit on shore, generally reached by a walk of half a mile over sand, and of talks with shop people and fishermen. But such lighter relief was rare. The bulk dealt with channels and shoals with weird and depressing names, with the centre-plate, the sails, and the wind, buoys and 'booms', tides and 'berths' for the night. 'Kedging off' appeared to be a frequent diversion; 'running aground' was of almost daily occurrence.

It was not easy reading, and I turned the leaves rapidly. I was curious, too, to see the latter part. I came to a point where the rain of little sentences, pattering out like small shot, ceased abruptly. It was at the end of 9th September. That day, with its 'kedging' and 'boom-dodging', was filled in with the usual detail. The log then leapt over three days, and went on: '13th. Sept.—Wind W.N.W. fresh. Decided to go to Baltic. Sailed 4 a.m. Quick passage E. S. to mouth of Weser. Anchored for night under Hohenhörn Sand. 14th Sept.—Nil. 15th Sept.—Under way at 4 a.m. Wind East moderate. Course W. by S.: four miles; N.E. by N. fifteen miles Norderpiep 9.30. Eider River 11.30.' This recital of naked facts was quite characteristic when 'passages' were concerned, and any curiosity I had felt about his reticence on the previous night would have been rather allayed than stimulated had I not noticed that a page had been torn out of the book just at this point. The frayed edge left had been pruned and picked into very small limits; but dissimulation was not Davies's strong point, and a child could have seen that a leaf was missing, and that the entries, starting from the evening of 9th September (where a page ended), had been written together at one sitting. I was on the point of calling to Davies, and chaffing him with having committed a grave offence against maritime law in having 'cooked' his log; but I checked myself, I scarcely know why, probably because I guessed the joke would touch a sensitive place and fail. Delicacy shrank from seeing him compelled either to amplify a deception or blunder out a confession—he was too easy a prey; and, after all, the matter was of small moment. I returned the book to the shelf, the only definite result of its perusal being to recall my promise to keep a diary myself, and I then and there dedicated a notebook to the purpose.

We were just lighting our cigars when we heard voices and the splash of oars, followed by a bump against the hull which made Davies wince, as violations of his paint always did. 'Guten Abend; wo fahren Sie hin?' greeted us as we climbed on deck. It turned out to be some jovial fishermen returning to their smack from a visit to Sonderburg. A short dialogue proved to them that we were mad Englishmen in bitter need of charity.

'Come to Satrup,' they said; 'all the smacks are there, round the point. There is good punch in the inn.'

Nothing loth, we followed in the dinghy, skirted a bend of the Sound, and opened up the lights of a village, with some smacks at anchor in front of it. We were escorted to the inn, and introduced to a formidable beverage, called coffee-punch, and a smoke-wreathed circle of smacksmen, who talked German out of courtesy, but were Danish in all else. Davies was at once at home with them, to a degree, indeed, that I envied. His German was of the crudest kind, bizarre in vocabulary and comical in accent; but the freemasonry of the sea, or some charm of his own, gave intuition to both him and his hearers. I cut a poor figure in this nautical gathering, though Davies, who persistently referred to me as 'meiner Freund', tried hard to represent me as a kindred spirit and to include me in the general talk. I was detected at once as an uninteresting hybrid. Davies, who sometimes appealed to me for a word, was deep in talk over anchorages and ducks, especially, as I well remember now, about the chance of sport in a certain Schlei Fiord. I fell into utter neglect, till rescued by a taciturn person in spectacles and a very high cap, who appeared to be the only landsman present. After silently puffing smoke in my direction for some time, he asked me if I was married, and if not, when I proposed to be. After this inquisition he abandoned me.

It was eleven before we left this hospitable inn, escorted by the whole party to the dinghy. Our friends of the smack insisted on our sharing their boat out of pure good-fellowship—for there was not nearly room for us—and would not let us go till a bucket of fresh-caught fish had been emptied into her bottom. After much shaking of scaly hands, we sculled back to the Dulcibella, where she slept in a bed of tremulous stars.

Davies sniffed the wind and scanned the tree-tops, where light gusts were toying with the leaves.

'Sou'-west still,' he said, 'and more rain coming. But it's bound to shift into the north.'

'Will that be a good wind for us?'

'It depends where we go,' he said, slowly. 'I was asking those fellows about duck-shooting. They seemed to think the best place would be Schlei Fiord. That's about fifteen miles south of Sonderburg, on the way to Kiel. They said there was a pilot chap living at the mouth who would tell us all about it. They weren't very encouraging though. We should want a north wind for that.'

'I don't care where we go,' I said, to my own surprise.

'Don't you really?' he rejoined, with sudden warmth. Then, with a slight change of voice. 'You mean it's all very jolly about here?'

Of course I meant that. Before we went below we both looked for a moment at the little grey memorial; its slender fretted arch outlined in tender lights and darks above the hollow on the Alsen shore. The night was that of 27th September, the third I had spent on the Dulcibella.

Thursday, 26 July 2012

Retrospect

Chapter IV: Retrospect

'WAKE up!' I rubbed my eyes and wondered where I was; stretched myself painfully, too, for even the cushions had not given me a true bed of roses. It was dusk, and the yacht was stationary in glassy water, coloured by the last after-glow. A roofing of thin upper-cloud had spread over most of the sky, and a subtle smell of rain was in the air. We seemed to be in the middle of the fiord, whose shores looked distant and steep in the gathering darkness. Close ahead they faded away suddenly, and the sight lost itself in a grey void. The stillness was absolute.

'We can't get to Sonderburg to-night,' said Davies.

'What's to be done then?' I asked, collecting my senses.

'Oh! we'll anchor anywhere here, we're just at the mouth of the fiord; I'll tow her inshore if you'll steer in that direction.' He pointed vaguely at a blur of trees and cliff. Then he jumped into the dinghy, cast off the painter, and, after snatching at the slack of a rope, began towing the reluctant yacht by short jerks of the sculls. The menacing aspect of that grey void, combined with a natural preference for getting to some definite place at night, combined to depress my spirits afresh. In my sleep I had dreamt of Morven Lodge, of heather tea-parties after glorious slaughters of grouse, of salmon leaping in amber pools—and now—

'Just take a cast of the lead, will you?' came Davies's voice above the splash of the sculls.

'Where is it?' I shouted back.

'Never mind—we're close enough now; let—Can you manage to let go the anchor?'

I hurried forward and picked impotently at the bonds of the sleeping monster. But Davies was aboard again, and stirred him with a deft touch or two, till he crashed into the water with a grinding of chain.

'We shall do well here,' said he.

'Isn't this rather an open anchorage?' I suggested.

'It's only open from that quarter,' he replied. 'If it comes on to blow from there we shall have to clear out; but I think it's only rain. Let's stow the sails.'

Another whirlwind of activity, in which I joined as effectively as I could, oppressed by the prospect of having to 'clear out'—who knows whither?—at midnight. But Davies's sang froid was infectious, I suppose, and the little den below, bright-lit and soon fragrant with cookery, pleaded insistently for affection. Yachting in this singular style was hungry work, I found. Steak tastes none the worse for having been wrapped in newspaper, and the slight traces of the day's news disappear with frying in onions and potato-chips. Davies was indeed on his mettle for this, his first dinner to his guest; for he produced with stealthy pride, not from the dishonoured grave of the beer, but from some more hallowed recess, a bottle of German champagne, from which we drank success to the Dulcibella.

'I wish you would tell me all about your cruise from England,' I asked. 'You must have had some exciting adventures. Here are the charts; let's go over them.'

'We must wash up first,' he replied, and I was tactfully introduced to one of his very few 'standing orders', that tobacco should not burn, nor post-prandial chat begin, until that distasteful process had ended. 'It would never get done otherwise,' he sagely opined. But when we were finally settled with cigars, a variety of which, culled from many ports—German, Dutch, and Belgian—Davies kept in a battered old box in the net-rack, the promised talk hung fire.

'I'm no good at description,' he complained; 'and there's really very little to tell. We left Dover—Morrison and I—on 6th August; made a good passage to Ostend.'

'You had some fun there, I suppose?' I put in, thinking of—well, of Ostend in August.

'Fun! A filthy hole I call it; we had to stop a couple of days, as we fouled a buoy coming in and carried away the bobstay; we lay in a dirty little tidal dock, and there was nothing to do on shore.'

'Well, what next?'

'We had a splendid sail to the East Scheldt, but then, like fools, decided to go through Holland by canal and river. It was good fun enough navigating the estuary—the tides and banks there are appalling—but farther inland it was a wretched business, nothing but paying lock-dues, bumping against schuyts, and towing down stinking canals. Never a peaceful night like this—always moored by some quay or tow-path, with people passing and boys. Heavens! shall I ever forget those boys! A perfect murrain of them infests Holland; they seem to have nothing in the world to do but throw stones and mud at foreign yachts.'

'They want a Herod, with some statesmanlike views on infanticide.'

'By Jove! yes; but the fact is that you want a crew for that pottering inland work; they can smack the boys and keep an eye on the sculls. A boat like this should stick to the sea, or out-of-the-way places on the coast. Well, after Amsterdam.'

'You've skipped a good deal, haven't you?' I interrupted.

'Oh! have I? Well, let me see, we went by Dordrecht to Rotterdam; nothing to see there, and swarms of tugs buzzing about and shaving one's bows every second. On by the Vecht river to Amsterdam, and thence—Lord, what a relief it was!—out into the North Sea again. The weather had been still and steamy; but it broke up finely now, and we had a rattling three-reef sail to the Zuyder Zee.'

He reached up to the bookshelf for what looked like an ancient ledger, and turned over the leaves.

'Is that your log?' I asked. 'I should like to have a look at it.'

'Oh! you'd find it dull reading—if you could read it at all; it's just short notes about winds and bearings, and so on.' He was turning some leaves over rapidly. 'Now, why don't you keep a log of what we do? I can't describe things, and you can.'

'I've half a mind to try,' I said.

'We want another chart now,' and he pulled down a second yet more stained and frayed than the first. 'We had a splendid time then exploring the Zuyder Zee, its northern part at least, and round those islands which bound it on the north. Those are the Frisian Islands, and they stretch for 120 miles or so eastward. You see, the first two of them, Texel and Vlieland, shut in the Zuyder Zee, and the rest border the Dutch and German coasts.' [See Map A]

'What's all this?' I said, running my finger over some dotted patches which covered much of the chart. The latter was becoming unintelligible; clean-cut coasts and neat regiments of little figures had given place to a confusion of winding and intersecting lines and bald spaces.

'All sand,' said Davies, enthusiastically. 'You can't think what a splendid sailing-ground it is. You can explore for days without seeing a soul. These are the channels, you see; they're very badly charted. This chart was almost useless, but it made it all the more fun. No towns or harbours, just a village or two on the islands, if you wanted stores.'

'They look rather desolate,' I said.

'Desolate's no word for it; they're really only gigantic sand-banks themselves.'

'Wasn't all this rather dangerous?' I asked.

'Not a bit; you see, that's where our shallow draught and flat bottom came in—we could go anywhere, and it didn't matter running aground—she's perfect for that sort of work; and she doesn't really look bad either, does she?' he asked, rather wistfully. I suppose I hesitated, for he said, abruptly:

'Anyway, I don't go in for looks.'

He had leaned back, and I detected traces of incipient absentmindedness. His cigar, which he had lately been lighting and relighting feverishly—a habit of his when excited—seemed now to have expired for good.

'About running aground,' I persisted; 'surely that's apt to be dangerous?'

He sat up and felt round for a match.

'Not the least, if you know where you can run risks and where you can't; anyway, you can't possibly help it. That chart may look simple to you'—('simple!' I thought)—'but at half flood all those banks are covered; the islands and coasts are scarcely visible, they are so low, and everything looks the same.' This graphic description of a 'splendid cruising-ground' took away my breath. 'Of course there is risk sometimes—choosing an anchorage requires care. You can generally get a nice berth under the lee of a bank, but the tides run strong in the channels, and if there's a gale blowing—'

'Didn't you ever take a pilot?' I interrupted.

'Pilot? Why, the whole point of the thing'—he stopped short—'I did take one once, later on,' he resumed, with an odd smile, which faded at once.

'Well?' I urged, for I saw a reverie was coming.

'Oh! he ran me ashore, of course. Served me right. I wonder what the weather's doing'; he rose, glanced at the aneroid, the clock, and the half-closed skylight with a curious circular movement, and went a step or two up the companion-ladder, where he remained for several minutes with head and shoulders in the open air.

There was no sound of wind outside, but the Dulcibella had begun to move in her sleep, as it were, rolling drowsily to some taint send of the sea, with an occasional short jump, like the start of an uneasy dreamer.

'What does it look like?' I called from my sofa. I had to repeat the question.

'Rain coming,' said Davies, returning, 'and possibly wind; but we're safe enough here. It's coming from the sou'-west; shall we turn in?'

'We haven't finished your cruise yet,' I said. 'Light a pipe and tell me the rest.'

'All right,' he agreed, with more readiness than I expected.

'After Terschelling—here it is, the third island from the west—I pottered along eastward.' [See Map A]

'I?'

'Oh! I forgot. Morrison had to leave me there. I missed him badly, but I hoped at that time to get—to join me. I could manage all right single-handed, but for that sort of work two are much better than one. The plate's beastly heavy; in fact, I had to give up using it for fear of a smash.'

'After Terschelling?' I jogged his memory.

'Well, I followed the Dutch islands, Ameland, Schiermonnikoog, Rottum (outlandish names, aren't they?), sometimes outside them, sometimes inside. It was a bit lonely, but grand sport and very interesting. The charts were shocking, but I worried out most of the channels.'

'I suppose those waters are only used by small local craft?' I put in; that would account for inaccuracies.' Did Davies think that Admiralties had time to waste on smoothing the road for such quixotic little craft as his, in all its inquisitive ramblings? But he fired up.

'That's all very well,' he said, 'but think what folly it is. However, that's a long story, and will bore you. To cut matters short, for we ought to be turning in, I got to Borkum—that's the first of the German islands.' He pointed at a round bare lozenge lying in the midst of a welter of sandbanks. 'Rottum—this queer little one—it has only one house on it—is the most easterly Dutch island, and the mainland of Holland ends here, opposite it, at the Ems River'—indicating a dismal cavity in the coast, sown with names suggestive of mud, and wrecks, and dreariness.

'What date was this?' I asked.

'About the ninth of this month.'

'Why, that's only a fortnight before you wired to me! You were pretty quick getting to Flensburg. Wait a bit, we want another chart. Is this the next?'

'Yes; but we scarcely need it. I only went a little way farther on—to Norderney, in fact, the third German island—then I decided to go straight for the Baltic. I had always had an idea of getting there, as Knight did in the Falcon. So I made a passage of it to the Eider River, there on the West Schleswig coast, took the river and canal through to Kiel on the Baltic, and from there made another passage up north to Flensburg. I was a week there, and then you came, and here we are. And now let's turn in. We'll have a fine sail to-morrow!' He ended with rather forced vivacity, and briskly rolled up the chart. The reluctance he had shown from the first to talk about his cruise had been for a brief space forgotten in his enthusiasm about a portion of it, but had returned markedly in this bald conclusion. I felt sure that there was more in it than mere disinclination to spin nautical yarns in the 'hardy Corinthian' style, which can be so offensive in amateur yachtsmen; and I thought I guessed the explanation. His voyage single-handed to the Baltic from the Frisian Islands had been a foolhardy enterprise, with perilous incidents, which, rather than make light of, he would not refer to at all. Probably he was ashamed of his recklessness and wished to ignore it with me, an inexperienced acquaintance not yet enamoured of the Dulcibella's way of life, whom both courtesy and interest demanded that he should inspire with confidence. I liked him all the better as I came to this conclusion, but I was tempted to persist a little.

'I slept the whole afternoon,' I said; 'and, to tell the truth, I rather dread the idea of going to bed, it's so tiring. Look here, you've rushed over that last part like an express train. That passage to the Schleswig coast—the Eider River, did you say?—was a longish one, wasn't it?'

'Well, you see what it was; about seventy miles, I suppose, direct.' He spoke low, bending down to sweep up some cigar ashes on the floor.

'Direct?' I insinuated. 'Then you put in somewhere?'

'I stopped once, anchored for the night; oh, that's nothing of a sail with a fair wind. By Jove! I've forgotten to caulk that seam over your bunk, and it's going to rain. I must do it now. You turn in.'

He disappeared. My curiosity, never very consuming, was banished by concern as to the open seam; for the prospect of a big drop, remorseless and regular as Fate, falling on my forehead throughout the night, as in the torture-chamber of the Inquisition, was alarming enough to recall me wholly to the immediate future. So I went to bed, finding on the whole that I had made progress in the exercise, though still far from being the trained contortionist that the occasion called for. Hammering ceased, and Davies reappeared just as I was stretched on the rack—tucked up in my bunk, I mean.

'I say,' he said, when he was settled in his, and darkness reigned, 'do you think you'll like this sort of thing?'

'If there are many places about here as beautiful as this,' I replied, 'I think I shall. But I should like to land now and then and have a walk. Of course, a great deal depends on the weather, doesn't it? I hope this rain' (drops had begun to patter overhead) 'doesn't mean that the summer's over for good.'

'Oh, you can sail just the same,' said Davies, 'unless it's very bad. There's plenty of sheltered water. There's bound to be a change soon. But then there are the ducks. The colder and stormier it is, the better for them.'

I had forgotten the ducks and the cold, and, suddenly presented as a shooting-box in inclement weather, the Dulcibella lost ground in my estimation, which she had latterly gained.

'I'm fond of shooting,' I said, 'but I'm afraid I'm only a fair-weather yachtsman, and I should much prefer sun and scenery.'

'Scenery,' he repeated, reflectively. 'I say, you must have thought it a queer taste of mine to cruise about on that outlandish Frisian coast. How would you like that sort of thing?'

'I should loathe it,' I answered, promptly, with a clear conscience. 'Weren't you delighted yourself to get to the Baltic? It must be a wonderful contrast to what you described. Did you ever see another yacht there?'

'Only one,' he answered. 'Good night!'

'Good night!'

Tuesday, 24 July 2012

Davies

Chapter III: Davies

I DOZED but fitfully, with a fretful sense of sore elbows and neck and many a draughty hiatus among the blankets. It was broad daylight before I had reached the stage of torpor in which such slumber merges. That was finally broken by the descent through the skylight of a torrent of water. I started up, bumped my head hard against the decks, and blinked leaden-eyed upwards.

'Sorry! I'm scrubbing decks. Come up and bathe. Slept well?' I heard a voice saying from aloft.

'Fairly well,' I growled, stepping out into a pool of water on the oilcloth. Thence I stumbled up the ladder, dived overboard, and buried bad dreams, stiffness, frowsiness, and tormented nerves in the loveliest fiord of the lovely Baltic. A short and furious swim and I was back again, searching for a means of ascent up the smooth black side, which, low as it was, was slippery and unsympathetic. Davies, in a loose canvas shirt, with the sleeves tucked up, and flannels rolled up to the knee, hung over me with a rope's end, and chatted unconcernedly about the easiness of the job when you know how, adjuring me to mind the paint, and talking about an accommodation ladder he had once had, but had thrown overboard because it was so horribly in the way. When I arrived, my knees and elbows were picked out in black paint, to his consternation. Nevertheless, as I plied the towel, I knew that I had left in those limpid depths yet another crust of discontent and self-conceit.

As I dressed into flannels and blazer, I looked round the deck, and with an unskilled and doubtful eye took in all that the darkness had hitherto hidden. She seemed very small (in point of fact she was seven tons), something over thirty feet in length and nine in beam, a size very suitable to week-ends in the Solent, for such as liked that sort of thing; but that she should have come from Dover to the Baltic suggested a world of physical endeavour of which I had never dreamed. I passed to the aesthetic side. Smartness and beauty were essential to yachts, in my mind, but with the best resolves to be pleased I found little encouragement here. The hull seemed too low, and the mainmast too high; the cabin roof looked clumsy, and the skylights saddened the eye with dull iron and plebeian graining. What brass there was, on the tiller-head and elsewhere, was tarnished with sickly green. The decks had none of that creamy purity which Cowes expects, but were rough and grey, and showed tarry exhalations round the seams and rusty stains near the bows. The ropes and rigging were in mourning when contrasted with the delicate buff manilla so satisfying to the artistic eye as seen against the blue of a June sky at Southsea. Nor was the whole effect bettered by many signs of recent refitting. An impression of paint, varnish, and carpentry was in the air; a gaudy new burgee fluttered aloft; there seemed to be a new rope or two, especially round the diminutive mizzen-mast, which itself looked altogether new. But all this only emphasized the general plainness, reminding one of a respectable woman of the working-classes trying to dress above her station, and soon likely to give it up.

That the ensemble was businesslike and solid even my untrained eye could see. Many of the deck fittings seemed disproportionately substantial. The anchor-chain looked contemptuous of its charge; the binnacle with its compass was of a size and prominence almost comically impressive, and was, moreover the only piece of brass which was burnished and showed traces of reverent care. Two huge coils of stout and dingy warp lay just abaft the mainmast, and summed up the weather-beaten aspect of the little ship. I should add here that in the distant past she had been a lifeboat, and had been clumsily converted into a yacht by the addition of a counter, deck, and the necessary spars. She was built, as all lifeboats are, diagonally, of two skins of teak, and thus had immense strength, though, in the matter of looks, all a hybrid's failings.

Hunger and 'Tea's made!' from below brought me down to the cabin, where I found breakfast laid out on the table over the centre-board case, with Davies earnestly presiding, rather flushed as to the face, and sooty as to the fingers. There was a slight shortage of plate and crockery, but I praised the bacon and could do so truthfully, for its crisp and steaming shavings would have put to shame the efforts of my London cook. Indeed, I should have enjoyed the meal heartily were it not for the lowness of the sofa and table, causing a curvature of the body which made swallowing a more lengthy process than usual, and induced a periodical yearning to get up and stretch—a relief which spelt disaster to the skull. I noticed, too, that Davies spoke with a zest, sinister to me, of the delights of white bread and fresh milk, which he seemed to consider unusual luxuries, though suitable to an inaugural banquet in honour of a fastidious stranger. 'One can't be always going on shore,' he said, when I showed a discreet interest in these things. 'I lived for ten days on a big rye loaf over in the Frisian Islands.'

'And it died hard, I suppose?'

'Very hard, but' (gravely) 'quite good. After that I taught myself to make rolls; had no baking powder at first, so used Eno's fruit salt, but they wouldn't rise much with that. As for milk, condensed is—I hope you don't mind it?'

I changed the subject, and asked about his plans.

'Let's get under way at once,' he said, 'and sail down the fiord.' I tried for something more specific, but he was gone, and his voice drowned in the fo'c'sle by the clatter and swish of washing up. Thenceforward events moved with bewildering rapidity. Humbly desirous of being useful I joined him on deck, only to find that he scarcely noticed me, save as a new and unexpected obstacle in his round of activity. He was everywhere at once—heaving in chain, hooking on halyards, hauling ropes; while my part became that of the clown who does things after they are already done, for my knowledge of a yacht was of that floating and inaccurate kind which is useless in practice. Soon the anchor was up (a great rusty monster it was!), the sails set, and Davies was darting swiftly to and fro between the tiller and jib-sheets, while the Dulcibella bowed a lingering farewell to the shore and headed for the open fiord. Erratic puffs from the high land behind made her progress timorous at first, but soon the fairway was reached and a true breeze from Flensburg and the west took her in its friendly grip. Steadily she rustled down the calm blue highway whose soft beauty was the introduction to a passage in my life, short, but pregnant with moulding force, through stress and strain, for me and others.

Davies was gradually resuming his natural self, with abstracted intervals, in which he lashed the helm to finger a distant rope, with such speed that the movements seemed simultaneous. Once he vanished, only to reappear in an instant with a chart, which he studied, while steering, with a success that its reluctant folds seemed to render impossible. Waiting respectfully for his revival I had full time to look about. The fiord here was about a mile broad. From the shore we had left the hills rose steeply, but with no rugged grandeur; the outlines were soft; there were green spaces and rich woods on the lower slopes; a little white town was opening up in one place, and scattered farms dotted the prospect. The other shore, which I could just see, framed between the gunwale and the mainsail, as I sat leaning against the hatchway, and sadly missing a deck-chair, was lower and lonelier, though prosperous and pleasing to the eye. Spacious pastures led up by slow degrees to ordered clusters of wood, which hinted at the presence of some great manor house. Behind us, Flensburg was settling into haze. Ahead, the scene was shut in by the contours of hills, some clear, some dreamy and distant. Lastly, a single glimpse of water shining between the folds of hill far away hinted at spaces of distant sea of which this was but a secluded inlet. Everywhere was that peculiar charm engendered by the association of quiet pastoral country and a homely human atmosphere with a branch of the great ocean that bathes all the shores of our globe.

There was another charm in the scene, due to the way in which I was viewing it—not as a pampered passenger on a 'fine steam yacht', or even on 'a powerful modern schooner', as the yacht agents advertise, but from the deck of a scrubby little craft of doubtful build and distressing plainness, which yet had smelt her persistent way to this distant fiord through I knew not what of difficulty and danger, with no apparent motive in her single occupant, who talked as vaguely and unconcernedly about his adventurous cruise as though it were all a protracted afternoon on Southampton Water.

I glanced round at Davies. He had dropped the chart and was sitting, or rather half lying, on the deck with one bronzed arm over the tiller, gazing fixedly ahead, with just an occasional glance around and aloft. He still seemed absorbed in himself, and for a moment or two I studied his face with an attention I had never, since I had known him, given it. I had always thought it commonplace, as I had thought him commonplace, so far as I had thought at all about either. It had always rather irritated me by an excess of candour and boyishness. These qualities it had kept, but the scales were falling from my eyes, and I saw others. I saw strength to obstinacy and courage to recklessness, in the firm lines of the chin; an older and deeper look in the eyes. Those odd transitions from bright mobility to detached earnestness, which had partly amused and chiefly annoyed me hitherto, seemed now to be lost in a sensitive reserve, not cold or egotistic, but strangely winning from its paradoxical frankness. Sincerity was stamped on every lineament. A deep misgiving stirred me that, clever as I thought myself, nicely perceptive of the right and congenial men to know, I had made some big mistakes—how many, I wondered? A relief, scarcely less deep because it was unconfessed, stole in on me with the suspicion that, little as I deserved it, the patient fates were offering me a golden chance of repairing at least one. And yet, I mused, the patient fates have crooked methods, besides a certain mischievous humour, for it was Davies who had asked me out—though now he scarcely seemed to need me—almost tricked me into coming out, for he might have known I was not suited to such a life; yet trickery and Davies sounded an odd conjuncture.

Probably it was the growing discomfort of my attitude which produced this backsliding. My night's rest and the 'ascent from the bath' had, in fact, done little to prepare me for contact with sharp edges and hard surfaces. But Davies had suddenly come to himself, and with an 'I say, are you comfortable? Have something to sit on?' jerked the helm a little to windward, felt it like a pulse for a moment, with a rapid look to windward, and dived below, whence he returned with a couple of cushions, which he threw to me. I felt perversely resentful of these luxuries, and asked:

'Can't I be of any use?'

'Oh, don't you bother,' he answered. 'I expect you're tired. Aren't we having a splendid sail? That must be Ekken on the port bow,' peering under the sail, 'where the trees run in. I say, do you mind looking at the chart?' He tossed it over to me. I spread it out painfully, for it curled up like a watch-spring at the least slackening of pressure. I was not familiar with charts, and this sudden trust reposed in me, after a good deal of neglect, made me nervous.

'You see Flensburg, don't you?' he said. 'That's where we are,' dabbing with a long reach at an indefinite space on the crowded sheet. 'Now which side of that buoy off the point do we pass?'

I had scarcely taken in which was land and which was water, much less the significance of the buoy, when he resumed:

'Never mind; I'm pretty sure it's all deep water about here. I expect that marks the fair-way for steamers.

In a minute or two we were passing the buoy in question, on the wrong side I am pretty certain, for weeds and sand came suddenly into view below us with uncomfortable distinctness. But all Davies said was:

'There's never any sea here, and the plate's not down,' a dark utterance which I pondered doubtfully. 'The best of these Schleswig waters,' he went on, is that a boat of this size can go almost anywhere. There's no navigation required. Why—'At this moment a faint scraping was felt, rather than heard, beneath us.

'Aren't we aground?' I asked with great calmness.

'Oh, she'll blow over,' he replied, wincing a little.

She 'blew over', but the episode caused a little naive vexation in Davies. I relate it as a good instance of one of his minor peculiarities. He was utterly without that didactic pedantry which yachting has a fatal tendency to engender In men who profess it. He had tossed me the chart without a thought that I was an ignoramus, to whom it would be Greek, and who would provide him with an admirable subject to drill and lecture, just as his neglect of me throughout the morning had been merely habitual and unconscious independence. In the second place, master of his métier, as I knew him afterwards to be, resourceful, skilful, and alert, he was liable to lapse into a certain amateurish vagueness, half irritating and half amusing. I think truly that both these peculiarities came from the same source, a hatred of any sort of affectation. To the same source I traced the fact that he and his yacht observed none of the superficial etiquette of yachts and yachtsmen, that she never, for instance, flew a national ensign, and he never wore a 'yachting suit'.

We rounded a low green point which I had scarcely noticed before.

'We must jibe,' said Davies: 'just take the helm, will you?' and, without waiting for my co-operation, he began hauling in the mainsheet with great vigour. I had rude notions of steering, but jibing is a delicate operation. No yachtsman will be surprised to hear that the boom saw its opportunity and swung over with a mighty crash, with the mainsheet entangled round me and the tiller.

'Jibed all standing,' was his sorrowful comment. 'You're not used to her yet. She's very quick on the helm.'

'Where am I to steer for?' I asked, wildly.

'Oh, don't trouble, I'll take her now,' he replied.

I felt it was time to make my position clear. 'I'm an utter duffer at sailing,' I began. 'You'll have a lot to teach me, or one of these days I shall be wrecking you. You see, there's always been a crew—'Crew!'—with sovereign contempt—'why, the whole fun of the thing is to do everything oneself.'

'Well, I've felt in the way the whole morning.'

'I'm awfully sorry!' His dismay and repentance were comical. 'Why, it's just the other way; you may be all the use in the world.' He became absent.

We were following the inward trend of a small bay towards a cleft in the low shore.

'That's Ekken Sound,' said Davies; 'let's look into it,' and a minute or two later we were drifting through a dainty little strait, with a peep of open water at the end of it. Cottages bordered either side, some overhanging the very water, some connecting with it by a rickety wooden staircase or a miniature landing-stage. Creepers and roses rioted over the walls and tiny porches. For a space on one side, a rude quay, with small smacks floating off it, spoke of some minute commercial interests; a very small tea-garden, with neglected-looking bowers and leaf-strewn tables, hinted at some equally minute tripping interest. A pervading hue of mingled bronze and rose came partly from the weather-mellowed woodwork of the cottages and stages, and partly from the creepers and the trees behind, where autumn's subtle fingers were already at work. Down this exquisite sea-lane we glided till it ended in a broad mere, where our sails, which had been shivering and complaining, filled into contented silence.

'Ready about!' said Davies, callously. 'We must get out of this again.' And round we swung.

'Why not anchor and stop here?' I protested; for a view of tantalizing loveliness was unfolding itself.

'Oh, we've seen all there is to be seen, and we must take this breeze while we've got it.' It was always torture to Davies to feel a good breeze running to waste while he was inactive at anchor or on shore. The 'shore' to him was an inferior element, merely serving as a useful annexe to the water—a source of necessary supplies.

'Let's have lunch,' he pursued, as we resumed our way down the fiord. A vision of iced drinks, tempting salads, white napery, and an attentive steward mocked me with past recollections.

'You'll find a tongue,' said the voice of doom, 'in the starboard sofa-locker; beer under the floor in the bilge. I'll see her round that buoy, if you wouldn't mind beginning.' I obeyed with a bad grace, but the close air and cramped posture must have benumbed my faculties, for I opened the port-side locker, reached down, and grasped a sticky body, which turned out to be a pot of varnish. Recoiling wretchedly, I tried the opposite one, combating the embarrassing heel of the boat and the obstructive edges of the centre-board case. A medley of damp tins of varied sizes showed in the gloom, exuding a mouldy odour. Faded legends on dissolving paper, like the remnants of old posters on a disused hoarding, spoke of soups, curries, beefs, potted meats, and other hidden delicacies. I picked out a tongue, re-imprisoned the odour, and explored for beer. It was true, I supposed, that bilge didn't hurt it, as I tugged at the plank on my hands and knees, but I should have myself preferred a more accessible and less humid wine-cellar than the cavities among slimy ballast from which I dug the bottles. I regarded my hard-won and ill-favoured pledges of a meal with giddiness and discouragement.

'How are you getting on?' shouted Davies; 'the tin-opener's hanging up on the bulkhead; the plates and knives are in the cupboard.'

I doggedly pursued my functions. The plates and knives met me half-way, for, being on the weather side, and thus having a downward slant, its contents, when I slipped the latch, slid affectionately into my bosom, and overflowed with a clatter and jingle on to the floor.

'That often happens,' I heard from above. 'Never mind! There are no breakables. I'm coming down to help.' And down he came, leaving the Dulcibella to her own devices.

'I think I'll go on deck,' I said. 'Why in the world couldn't you lunch comfortably at Ekken and save this infernal pandemonium of a picnic? Where's the yacht going to meanwhile? And how are we to lunch on that slanting table? I'm covered with varnish and mud, and ankle-deep in crockery. There goes the beer!'

'You shouldn't have stood it on the table with this list on,' said Davies, with intense composure, 'but it won't do any harm; it'll drain into the bilge' (ashes to ashes, dust to dust, I thought). 'You go on deck now, and I'll finish getting ready.' I regretted my explosion, though wrung from me under great provocation.

'Keep her straight on as she's going,' said Davies, as I clambered up out of the chaos, brushing the dust off my trousers and varnishing the ladder with my hands. I unlashed the helm and kept her as she was going.

We had rounded a sharp bend in the fiord, and were sailing up a broad and straight reach which every moment disclosed new beauties, sights fair enough to be balm to the angriest spirit. A red-roofed hamlet was on our left, on the right an ivied ruin, close to the water, where some contemplative cattle stood knee-deep. The view ahead was a white strand which fringed both shores, and to it fell wooded slopes, interrupted here and there by low sandstone cliffs of warm red colouring, and now and again by a dingle with cracks of greensward.

I forgot petty squalors and enjoyed things—the coy tremble of the tiller and the backwash of air from the dingy mainsail, and, with a somewhat chastened rapture, the lunch which Davies brought up to me and solicitously watched me eat.

Later, as the wind sank to lazy airs, he became busy with a larger topsail and jib; but I was content to doze away the afternoon, drenching brain and body in the sweet and novel foreign atmosphere, and dreamily watching the fringe of glen cliff and cool white sand as they passed ever more slowly by.

Sunday, 22 July 2012

The Dulcibella

Chapter II: The Dulcibella

THAT two days later I should be found pacing the deck of the Flushing steamer with a ticket for Hamburg in my pocket may seem a strange result, yet not so strange if you have divined my state of mind. You will guess, at any rate, that I was armed with the conviction that I was doing an act of obscure penance, rumours of which might call attention to my lot and perhaps awaken remorse in the right quarter, while it left me free to enjoy myself unobtrusively in the remote event of enjoyment being possible.

The fact was that, at breakfast on the morning after the arrival of the letter, I had still found that inexplicable lightening which I mentioned before, and strong enough to warrant a revival of the pros and cons. An important pro which I had not thought of before was that after all it was a good-natured piece of unselfishness to join Davies; for he had spoken of the want of a pal, and seemed honestly to be in need of me. I almost clutched at this consideration. It was an admirable excuse, when I reached my office that day, for a resigned study of the Continental Bradshaw, and an order to Carter to unroll a great creaking wall-map of Germany and find me Flensburg. The latter labour I might have saved him, but it was good for Carter to have something to do; and his patient ignorance was amusing. With most of the map and what it suggested I was tolerably familiar, for I had not wasted my year in Germany, whatever I had done or not done since. Its people, history, progress, and future had interested me intensely, and I had still friends in Dresden and Berlin. Flensburg recalled the Danish war of '64, and by the time Carter's researches had ended in success I had forgotten the task set him, and was wondering whether the prospect of seeing something of that lovely region of Schleswig-Holstein, as I knew from hearsay that it was, was at all to be set against such an uncomfortable way of seeing it, with the season so late, the company so unattractive, and all the other drawbacks which I counted and treasured as proofs of my desperate condition, if I were to go. It needed little to decide me, and I think K—'s arrival from Switzerland, offensively sunburnt, was the finishing touch. His greeting was 'Hullo, Carruthers, you here? Thought you had got away long ago. Lucky devil, though, to be going now, just in time for the best driving and the early pheasants. The heat's been shocking out there. Carter, bring me a Bradshaw'—(an extraordinary book, Bradshaw, turned to from habit, even when least wanted, as men fondle guns and rods in the close season).


By lunch-time the weight of indecision had been removed, and I found myself entrusting Carter with a telegram to Davies, P.O., Flensburg. 'Thanks; expect me 9.34 p.m. 26th'; which produced, three hours later, a reply: 'Delighted; please bring a No. 3 Rippingille stove'—a perplexing and ominous direction, which somehow chilled me in spite of its subject matter.

Indeed, my resolution was continually faltering. It faltered when I turned out my gun in the evening and thought of the grouse it ought to have accounted for. It faltered again when I contemplated the miscellaneous list of commissions, sown broadcast through Davies's letter, to fulfil which seemed to make me a willing tool where my chosen rôle was that of an embittered exile, or at least a condescending ally. However, I faced the commissions manfully, after leaving the office.

At Lancaster's I inquired for his gun, was received coolly, and had to pay a heavy bill, which it seemed to have incurred, before it was handed over. Having ordered the gun and No. 4's to be sent to my chambers, I bought the Raven mixture with that peculiar sense of injury which the prospect of smuggling in another's behalf always entails; and wondered where in the world Carey and Neilson's was, a firm which Davies spoke of as though it were as well known as the Bank of England or the Stores, instead of specializing in 'rigging-screws', whatever they might be. They sounded important, though, and it would be only polite to unearth them. I connected them with the 'few repairs,' and awoke new misgivings. At the Stores I asked for a No. 3 Rippingille stove, and was confronted with a formidable and hideous piece of ironmongery, which burned petroleum in two capacious tanks, horribly prophetic of a smell of warm oil. I paid for this miserably, convinced of its grim efficiency, but speculating as to the domestic conditions which caused it to be sent for as an afterthought by telegram. I also asked about rigging-screws in the yachting department, but learnt that they were not kept in stock; that Carey and Neilson's would certainly have them, and that their shop was in the Minories, in the far east, meaning a journey nearly as long as to Flensburg, and twice as tiresome. They would be shut by the time I got there, so after this exhausting round of duty I went home in a cab, omitted dressing for dinner (an epoch in itself), ordered a chop up from the basement kitchen, and spent the rest of the evening packing and writing, with the methodical gloom of a man setting his affairs in order for the last time.

The last of those airless nights passed. The astonished Withers saw me breakfasting at eight, and at 9.30 I was vacantly examining rigging-screws with what wits were left me after a sulphurous ride in the Underground to Aldgate. I laid great stress on the 3/8's, and the galvanism, and took them on trust, ignorant as to their functions. For the eleven-shilling oilskins I was referred to a villainous den in a back street, which the shopman said they always recommended, and where a dirty and bejewelled Hebrew chaffered with me (beginning at 18s.) over two reeking orange slabs distantly resembling moieties of the human figure. Their odour made me close prematurely for 14s., and I hurried back (for I was due there at eleven) to my office with my two disreputable brown-paper parcels, one of which made itself so noticeable in the close official air that Carter attentively asked if I would like to have it sent to my chambers, and K—was inquisitive to bluntness about it and my movements. But I did not care to enlighten K—, whose comments I knew would be provokingly envious or wounding to my pride in some way.

I remembered, later on, the prismatic compass, and wired to the Minories to have one sent at once, feeling rather relieved that I was not present there to be cross-examined as to size and make.

The reply was, 'Not stocked; try surveying-instrument maker'—a reply both puzzling and reassuring, for Davies's request for a compass had given me more uneasiness than anything, while, to find that what he wanted turned out to be a surveying-instrument, was a no less perplexing discovery. That day I made my last précis and handed over my schedules—Procrustean beds, where unwilling facts were stretched and tortured—and said good-bye to my temporary chief, genial and lenient M—, who wished me a jolly holiday with all sincerity.

At seven I was watching a cab packed with my personal luggage and the collection of unwieldy and incongruous packages that my shopping had drawn down on me. Two deviations after that wretched prismatic compass—which I obtained in the end secondhand, faute de mieux, near Victoria, at one of those showy shops which look like jewellers' and are really pawnbrokers'—nearly caused me to miss my train. But at 8.30 I had shaken off the dust of London from my feet, and at 10.30 I was, as I have announced, pacing the deck of a Flushing steamer, adrift on this fatuous holiday in the far Baltic.

An air from the west, cooled by a midday thunderstorm, followed the steamer as she slid through the calm channels of the Thames estuary, passed the cordon of scintillating lightships that watch over the sea-roads to the imperial city like pickets round a sleeping army, and slipped out into the dark spaces of the North Sea. Stars were bright, summer scents from the Kent cliffs mingled coyly with vulgar steamer-smells; the summer weather held Immutably. Nature, for her part, seemed resolved to be no party to my penance, but to be imperturbably bent on shedding mild ridicule over my wrongs. An irresistible sense of peace and detachment, combined with that delicious physical awakening that pulses through the nerve-sick townsman when city airs and bald routine are left behind him, combined to provide me, however thankless a subject, with a solid background of resignation. Stowing this safely away, I could calculate my intentions with cold egotism. If the weather held I might pass a not intolerable fortnight with Davies. When it broke up, as it was sure to, I could easily excuse myself from the pursuit of the problematical ducks; the wintry logic of facts would, in any case, decide him to lay up his yacht, for he could scarcely think of sailing home at such a season. I could then take a chance lying ready of spending a few weeks in Dresden or elsewhere. I settled this programme comfortably and then turned in.

From Flushing eastward to Hamburg, then northward to Flensburg, I cut short the next day's sultry story. Past dyke and windmill and still canals, on to blazing stubbles and roaring towns; at the last, after dusk, through a quiet level region where the train pottered from one lazy little station to another, and at ten o'clock I found myself, stiff and stuffy, on the platform at Flensburg, exchanging greetings with Davies.

'It's awfully good of you to come.'

'Not at all; it's very good of you to ask me.'

We were both of us ill at ease. Even in the dim gaslight he clashed on my notions of a yachtsman—no cool white ducks or neat blue serge; and where was the snowy crowned yachting cap, that precious charm that so easily converts a landsman into a dashing mariner? Conscious that this impressive uniform, in high perfection, was lying ready in my portmanteau, I felt oddly guilty. He wore an old Norfolk jacket, muddy brown shoes, grey flannel trousers (or had they been white?), and an ordinary tweed cap. The hand he gave me was horny, and appeared to be stained with paint; the other one, which carried a parcel, had a bandage on it which would have borne renewal. There was an instant of mutual inspection. I thought he gave me a shy, hurried scrutiny as though to test past conjectures, with something of anxiety in it, and perhaps (save the mark!) a tinge of admiration. The face was familiar, and yet not familiar; the pleasant blue eyes, open, clean-cut features, unintellectual forehead were the same; so were the brisk and impulsive movements; there was some change; but the moment of awkward hesitation was over and the light was bad; and, while strolling down the platform for my luggage, we chatted with constraint about trivial things.

'By the way,' he suddenly said, laughing, 'I'm afraid I'm not fit to be seen; but it's so late it doesn't matter. I've been painting hard all day, and just got it finished. I only hope we shall have some wind to-morrow—it's been hopelessly calm lately. I say, you've brought a good deal of stuff,' he concluded, as my belongings began to collect.

Here was a reward for my submissive exertions in the far east!

'You gave me a good many commissions!'

'Oh, I didn't mean those things,' he said, absently. 'Thanks for bringing them, by the way. That's the stove, I suppose; cartridges, this one, by the weight. You got the rigging-screws all right, I hope? They're not really necessary, of course' (I nodded vacantly, and felt a little hurt); 'but they're simpler than lanyards, and you can't get them here. It's that portmanteau,' he said, slowly, measuring it with a doubtful eye. 'Never mind! we'll try. You couldn't do with the Gladstone only, I suppose? You see, the dinghy—h'm, and there's the hatchway, too'—he was lost in thought. 'Anyhow, we'll try. I'm afraid there are no cabs; but it's quite near, and the porter'll help.'

Sickening forebodings crept over me, while Davies shouldered my Gladstone and clutched at the parcels.

'Aren't your men here?' I asked, faintly.

'Men?' He looked confused. 'Oh, perhaps I ought to have told you, I never have any paid hands; it's quite a small boat, you know—I hope you didn't expect luxury. I've managed her single-handed for some time. A man would be no use, and a horrible nuisance.' He revealed these appalling truths with a cheerful assurance, which did nothing to hide a naive apprehension of their effect on me. There was a check in our mobilization.

'It's rather late to go on board, isn't it?' I said, in a wooden voice. Someone was turning out the gaslights, and the porter yawned ostentatiously. 'I think I'd rather sleep at an hotel to-night.' A strained pause.

'Oh, of course you can do that, if you like,' said Davies, in transparent distress of mind. 'But it seems hardly worth while to cart this stuff all the way to an hotel (I believe they're all on the other side of the harbour), and back again to the boat to-morrow. She's quite comfortable, and you're sure to sleep well, as you're tired.'

'We can leave the things here,' I argued feebly, 'and walk over with my bag.'

'Oh, I shall have to go aboard anyhow,' he rejoined; 'I never sleep on shore.'

He seemed to be clinging timidly, but desperately, to some diplomatic end. A stony despair was invading me and paralysing resistance. Better face the worst and be done with it.

'Come on,' I said, grimly.

Heavily loaded, we stumbled over railway lines and rubble heaps, and came on the harbour. Davies led the way to a stairway, whose weedy steps disappeared below in gloom.

'If you'll get into the dinghy,' he said, all briskness now, 'I'll pass the things down.

I descended gingerly, holding as a guide a sodden painter which ended in a small boat, and conscious that I was collecting slime on cuffs and trousers.

'Hold up!' shouted Davies, cheerfully, as I sat down suddenly near the bottom, with one foot in the water.

I climbed wretchedly into the dinghy and awaited events.

'Now float her up close under the quay wall, and make fast to the ring down there,' came down from above, followed by the slack of the sodden painter, which knocked my cap off as it fell. 'All fast? Any knot'll do,' I heard, as I grappled with this loathsome task, and then a big, dark object loomed overhead and was lowered into the dinghy. It was my portmanteau, and, placed athwart, exactly filled all the space amidships. 'Does it fit?' was the anxious inquiry from aloft.

'Beautifully.'

'Capital!'

Scratching at the greasy wall to keep the dinghy close to it, I received in succession our stores, and stowed the cargo as best I could, while the dinghy sank lower and lower in the water, and its precarious superstructure grew higher.

'Catch!' was the final direction from above, and a damp soft parcel hit me in the chest. 'Be careful of that, it's meat. Now back to the stairs!'

I painfully acquiesced, and Davies appeared.

'It's a bit of a load, and she's rather deep; but I think we shall manage,' he reflected. 'You sit right aft, and I'll row.'

I was too far gone for curiosity as to how this monstrous pyramid was to be rowed, or even for surmises as to its foundering by the way. I crawled to my appointed seat, and Davies extricated the buried sculls by a series of tugs, which shook the whole structure, and made us roll alarmingly. How he stowed himself into rowing posture I have not the least idea, but eventually we were moving sluggishly out into the open water, his head just visible in the bows. We had started from what appeared to be the head of a narrow loch, and were leaving behind us the lights of a big town. A long frontage of lamp-lit quays was on our left, with here and there the vague hull of a steamer alongside. We passed the last of the lights and came out into a broader stretch of water, when a light breeze was blowing and dark hills could be seen on either shore.

'I'm lying a little way down the fiord, you see,' said Davies. 'I hate to be too near a town, and I found a carpenter handy here—There she is! I wonder how you'll like her!'

I roused myself. We were entering a little cove encircled by trees, and approaching a light which flickered in the rigging of a small vessel, whose outline gradually defined itself.

'Keep her off,' said Davies, as we drew alongside.

In a moment he had jumped on deck, tied the painter, and was round at my end.

'You hand them up,' he ordered, 'and I'll take them.'

It was a laborious task, with the one relief that it was not far to hand them—a doubtful compensation, for other reasons distantly shaping themselves. When the stack was transferred to the deck I followed it, tripping over the flabby meat parcel, which was already showing ghastly signs of disintegration under the dew. Hazily there floated through my mind my last embarkation on a yacht; my faultless attire, the trim gig and obsequious sailors, the accommodation ladder flashing with varnish and brass in the August sun; the orderly, snowy decks and basket chairs under the awning aft. What a contrast with this sordid midnight scramble, over damp meat and littered packing-cases! The bitterest touch of all was a growing sense of inferiority and ignorance which I had never before been allowed to feel in my experience of yachts.

Davies awoke from another reverie over my portmanteau to say, cheerily: 'I'll just show you round down below first, and then we'll stow things away and get to bed.'

He dived down a companion ladder, and I followed cautiously. A complex odour of paraffin, past cookery, tobacco, and tar saluted my nostrils.

'Mind your head,' said Davies, striking a match and lighting a candle, while I groped into the cabin. 'You'd better sit down; it's easier to look round.'

There might well have been sarcasm in this piece of advice, for I must have cut a ridiculous figure, peering awkwardly and suspiciously round, with shoulders and head bent to avoid the ceiling, which seemed in the half-light to be even nearer the floor than it was.

'You see,' were Davies's reassuring words, 'there's plenty of room to sit upright' (which was strictly true; but I am not very tall, and he is short). 'Some people make a point of head-room, but I never mind much about it. That's the centre-board case,' he explained, as, in stretching my legs out, my knee came into contact with a sharp edge.

I had not seen this devilish obstruction, as it was hidden beneath the table, which indeed rested on it at one end. It appeared to be a long, low triangle, running lengthways with the boat and dividing the naturally limited space into two.

'You see, she's a flat-bottomed boat, drawing very little water without the plate; that's why there's so little headroom. For deep water you lower the plate; so, in one way or another, you can go practically anywhere.'

I was not nautical enough to draw any very definite conclusions from this, but what I did draw were not promising. The latter sentences were spoken from the forecastle, whither Davies had crept through a low sliding door, like that of a rabbit-hutch, and was already busy with a kettle over a stove which I made out to be a battered and disreputable twin brother of the No. 3 Rippingille.

'It'll be boiling soon,' he remarked, 'and we'll have some grog.'

My eyes were used to the light now, and I took in the rest of my surroundings, which may be very simply described. Two long cushion-covered seats flanked the cabin, bounded at the after end by cupboards, one of which was cut low to form a sort of miniature sideboard, with glasses hung in a rack above it. The deck overhead was very low at each side but rose shoulder high for a space in the middle, where a 'coach-house roof' with a skylight gave additional cabin space. Just outside the door was a fold-up washing-stand. On either wall were long net-racks holding a medley of flags, charts, caps, cigar-boxes, hanks of yarn, and such like. Across the forward bulkhead was a bookshelf crammed to overflowing with volumes of all sizes, many upside down and some coverless. Below this were a pipe-rack, an aneroid, and a clock with a hearty tick. All the woodwork was painted white, and to a less jaundiced eye than mine the interior might have had an enticing look of snugness. Some Kodak prints were nailed roughly on the after bulkhead, and just over the doorway was the photograph of a young girl.

'That's my sister,' said Davies, who had emerged and saw me looking at it. 'Now, let's get the stuff down.' He ran up the ladder, and soon my portmanteau blackened the hatchway, and a great straining and squeezing began. 'I was afraid it was too big,' came down; 'I'm sorry, but you'll have to unpack on deck—we may be able to squash it down when it's empty.'

Then the wearisome tail of packages began to form a fresh stack in the cramped space at my feet, and my back ached with stooping and moiling in unfamiliar places. Davies came down, and with unconcealed pride introduced me to the sleeping cabin (he called the other one 'the saloon'). Another candle was lit and showed two short and narrow berths with blankets, but no sign of sheets; beneath these were drawers, one set of which Davies made me master of, evidently thinking them a princely allowance of space for my wardrobe.

'You can chuck your things down the skylight on to your berth as you unpack them,' he remarked. 'By the way, I doubt if there's room for all you've got. I suppose you couldn't manage—'

'No, I couldn't,' I said shortly.

The absurdity of argument struck me; two men, doubled up like monkeys, cannot argue.

'If you'll go out I shall be able to get out too,' I added. He seemed miserable at this ghost of an altercation, but I pushed past, mounted the ladder, and in the expiring moonlight unstrapped that accursed portmanteau and, brimming over with irritation, groped among its contents, sorting some into the skylight with the same feeling that nothing mattered much now, and it was best to be done with it; repacking the rest with guilty stealth ere Davies should discover their character, and strapping up the whole again. Then I sat down upon my white elephant and shivered, for the chill of autumn was in the air. It suddenly struck me that if it had been raining things might have been worse still. The notion made me look round. The little cove was still as glass; stars above and stars below; a few white cottages glimmering at one point on the shore; in the west the lights of Flensburg; to the east the fiord broadening into unknown gloom. From Davies toiling below there were muffled sounds of wrenching, pushing, and hammering, punctuated occasionally by a heavy splash as something shot up from the hatchway and fell into the water.

How it came about I do not know. Whether it was something pathetic in the look I had last seen on his face—a look which I associated for no reason whatever with his bandaged hand; whether it was one of those instants of clear vision in which our separate selves are seen divided, the baser from the better, and I saw my silly egotism in contrast with a simple generous nature; whether it was an impalpable air of mystery which pervaded the whole enterprise and refused to be dissipated by its most mortifying and vulgarizing incidents—a mystery dimly connected with my companion's obvious consciousness of having misled me into joining him; whether it was only the stars and the cool air rousing atrophied instincts of youth and spirits; probably, indeed, it was all these influences, cemented into strength by a ruthless sense of humour which whispered that I was in danger of making a mere commonplace fool of myself in spite of all my laboured calculations; but whatever it was, in a flash my mood changed. The crown of martyrdom disappeared, the wounded vanity healed; that precious fund of fictitious resignation drained away, but left no void. There was left a fashionable and dishevelled young man sitting in the dew and in the dark on a ridiculous portmanteau which dwarfed the yacht that was to carry it; a youth acutely sensible of ignorance in a strange and strenuous atmosphere; still feeling sore and victimized; but withal sanely ashamed and sanely resolved to enjoy himself. I anticipate; for though the change was radical its full growth was slow. But in any case it was here and now that it took its birth.

'Grog's ready!' came from below. Bunching myself for the descent I found to my astonishment that all trace of litter had miraculously vanished, and a cosy neatness reigned. Glasses and lemons were on the table, and a fragrant smell of punch had deadened previous odours. I showed little emotion at these amenities, but enough to give intense relief to Davies, who delightedly showed me his devices for storage, praising the 'roominess' of his floating den. 'There's your stove, you see,' he ended; 'I've chucked the old one overboard.' It was a weakness of his, I should say here, to rejoice in throwing things overboard on the flimsiest pretexts. I afterwards suspected that the new stove had not been 'really necessary' any more than the rigging-screws, but was an excuse for gratifying this curious taste.

We smoked and chatted for a little, and then came the problem of going to bed. After much bumping of knuckles and head, and many giddy writhings, I mastered it, and lay between the rough blankets. Davies, moving swiftly and deftly, was soon in his.

'It's quite comfortable, isn't it?' he said, as he blew out the light from where he lay, with an accuracy which must have been the fruit of long practice.

I felt prickly all over, and there was a damp patch on the pillow, which was soon explained by a heavy drop of moisture falling on my forehead.

'I suppose the deck's not leaking?' I said, as mildly as I could. 'I'm awfully sorry,' said Davies, earnestly, tumbling out of his bunk. 'It must be the heavy dew. I did a lot of caulking yesterday, but I suppose I missed that place. I'll run up and square it with an oilskin.'

'What's wrong with your hand?' I asked, sleepily, on his return, for gratitude reminded me of that bandage.

'Nothing much; I strained it the other day,' was the reply; and then the seemingly inconsequent remark: 'I'm glad you brought that prismatic compass. It's not really necessary, of course; but' (muffled by blankets) 'it may come in useful.'

Friday, 20 July 2012

The Letter

Chapter I: The Letter

I HAVE read of men who, when forced by their calling to live for long periods in utter solitude—save for a few black faces—have made it a rule to dress regularly for dinner in order to maintain their self-respect and prevent a relapse into barbarism. It was in some such spirit, with an added touch of self-consciousness, that, at seven o'clock in the evening of 23rd September in a recent year, I was making my evening toilet in my chambers in Pall Mall. I thought the date and the place justified the parallel; to my advantage even; for the obscure Burmese administrator might well be a man of blunted sensibilities and coarse fibre, and at least he is alone with nature, while I—well, a young man of condition and fashion, who knows the right people, belongs to the right clubs, has a safe, possibly a brilliant, future in the Foreign Office—may be excused for a sense of complacent martyrdom, when, with his keen appreciation of the social calendar, he is doomed to the outer solitude of London in September. I say 'martyrdom', but in fact the case was infinitely worse. For to feel oneself a martyr, as everybody knows, is a pleasurable thing, and the true tragedy of my position was that I had passed that stage. I had enjoyed what sweets it had to offer in ever dwindling degree since the middle of August, when ties were still fresh and sympathy abundant. I had been conscious that I was missed at Morven Lodge party. Lady Ashleigh herself had said so in the kindest possible manner, when she wrote to acknowledge the letter in which I explained, with an effectively austere reserve of language, that circumstances compelled me to remain at my office. 'We know how busy you must be just now', she wrote, 'and I do hope you won't overwork; we shall all miss you very much.' Friend after friend 'got away' to sport and fresh air, with promises to write and chaffing condolences, and as each deserted the sinking ship, I took a grim delight in my misery, positively almost enjoying the first week or two after my world had been finally dissipated to the four bracing winds of heaven.

I began to take a spurious interest in the remaining five millions, and wrote several clever letters in a vein of cheap satire, indirectly suggesting the pathos of my position, but indicating that I was broad-minded enough to find intellectual entertainment in the scenes, persons, and habits of London in the dead season. I even did rational things at the instigation of others. For, though I should have liked total isolation best, I, of course, found that there was a sediment of unfortunates like myself, who, unlike me, viewed the situation in a most prosaic light. There were river excursions, and so on, after office-hours; but I dislike the river at any time for its noisy vulgarity, and most of all at this season. So I dropped out of the fresh air brigade and declined H—'s offer to share a riverside cottage and run up to town in the mornings. I did spend one or two week-ends with the Catesbys in Kent; but I was not inconsolable when they let their house and went abroad, for I found that such partial compensations did not suit me. Neither did the taste for satirical observation last. A passing thirst, which I dare say many have shared, for adventures of the fascinating kind described in the New Arabian Nights led me on a few evenings into some shady haunts in Soho and farther eastward; but was finally quenched one sultry Saturday night after an hour's immersion in the reeking atmosphere of a low music-hall in Ratcliffe Highway, where I sat next a portly female who suffered from the heat, and at frequent intervals refreshed herself and an infant from a bottle of tepid stout.

By the first week in September I had abandoned all palliatives, and had settled into the dismal but dignified routine of office, club, and chambers. And now came the most cruel trial, for the hideous truth dawned on me that the world I found so indispensable could after all dispense with me. It was all very well for Lady Ashleigh to assure me that I was deeply missed; but a letter from F—, who was one of the party, written 'in haste, just starting to shoot', and coming as a tardy reply to one of my cleverest, made me aware that the house party had suffered little from my absence, and that few sighs were wasted on me, even in the quarter which I had assumed to have been discreetly alluded to by the underlined all in Lady Ashleigh's 'we shall all miss you'. A thrust which smarted more, if it bit less deeply, came from my cousin Nesta, who wrote: 'It's horrid for you to have to be baking in London now; but, after all, it must be a great pleasure to you' (malicious little wretch!) 'to have such interesting and important work to do.' Here was a nemesis for an innocent illusion I had been accustomed to foster in the minds of my relations and acquaintances, especially in the breasts of the trustful and admiring maidens whom I had taken down to dinner in the last two seasons; a fiction which I had almost reached the point of believing in myself. For the plain truth was that my work was neither interesting nor important, and consisted chiefly at present in smoking cigarettes, in saying that Mr So-and-So was away and would be back about 1st October, in being absent for lunch from twelve till two, and in my spare moments making précis of—let us say—the less confidential consular reports, and squeezing the results into cast-iron schedules. The reason of my detention was not a cloud on the international horizon—though I may say in passing that there was such a cloud—but a caprice on the part of a remote and mighty personage, the effect of which, ramifying downwards, had dislocated the carefully-laid holiday plans of the humble juniors, and in my own small case had upset the arrangement between myself and K—, who positively liked the dog-days in Whitehall.

Only one thing was needed to fill my cup of bitterness, and this it was that specially occupied me as I dressed for dinner this evening. Two days more in this dead and fermenting city and my slavery would be at an end. Yes, but—irony of ironies!—I had nowhere to go to! The Morven Lodge party was breaking up. A dreadful rumour as to an engagement which had been one of its accursed fruits tormented me with the fresh certainty that I had not been missed, and bred in me that most desolating brand of cynicism which is produced by defeat through insignificance. Invitations for a later date, which I had declined in July with a gratifying sense of being much in request, now rose up spectrally to taunt me. There was at least one which I could easily have revived, but neither in this case nor in any other had there been any renewal of pressure, and there are moments when the difference between proposing oneself and surrendering as a prize to one of several eagerly competing hostesses seems too crushing to be contemplated. My own people were at Aix for my father's gout; to join them was a pis aller whose banality was repellent. Besides, they would be leaving soon for our home in Yorkshire, and I was not a prophet in my own country. In short, I was at the extremity of depression.

The usual preliminary scuffle on the staircase prepared me for the knock and entry of Withers. (One of the things which had for some time ceased to amuse me was the laxity of manners, proper to the season, among the servants of the big block of chambers where I lived.) Withers demurely handed me a letter bearing a German post-mark and marked 'Urgent'. I had just finished dressing, and was collecting my money and gloves. A momentary thrill of curiosity broke in upon my depression as I sat down to open it. A corner on the reverse of the envelope bore the blotted legend: 'Very sorry, but there's one other thing—a pair of rigging screws from Carey and Neilson's, size 1-3/8, galvanized.' Here it is:

Yacht 'Dulcibella,'

Flensburg, Schleswig-Holstein, 21st Sept.

DEAR CARRUTHERS,—I daresay you'll be surprised at hearing from me, as it's ages since we met. It is more than likely, too, that what I'm going to suggest won't suit you, for I know nothing of your plans, and if you're in town at all you're probably just getting into harness again and can't get away. So I merely write on the offchance to ask if you would care to come out here and join me in a little yachting, and, I hope, duck shooting. I know you're keen on shooting, and I sort of remember that you have done some yachting too, though I rather forget about that. This part of the Baltic—the Schleswig fiords—is a splendid cruising-ground—A 1 scenery—and there ought to be plenty of duck about soon, if it gets cold enough. I came out here via Holland and the Frisian Islands, starting early in August. My pals have had to leave me, and I'm badly in want of another, as I don't want to lay up yet for a bit. I needn't say how glad I should be if you could come. If you can, send me a wire to the P.O. here. Flushing and on by Hamburg will be your best route, I think. I'm having a few repairs done here, and will have them ready sharp by the time your train arrives. Bring your gun and a good lot of No. 4's; and would you mind calling at Lancaster's and asking for mine, and bringing it too? Bring some oilskins. Better get the eleven-shilling sort, jacket and trousers—not the 'yachting' brand; and if you paint bring your gear. I know you speak German like a native, and that will be a great help. Forgive this hail of directions, but I've a sort of feeling that I'm in luck and that you'll come. Anyway, I hope you and the F.O. both flourish. Good-bye.

Yours ever, ARTHUR H. DAVIES.

Would you mind bringing me out a prismatic compass, and a pound of Raven Mixture.

This letter marked an epoch for me; but I little suspected the fact as I crumpled it into my pocket and started languidly on the voie douloureuse which I nightly followed to the club. In Pall Mall there were no dignified greetings to be exchanged now with well-groomed acquaintances. The only people to be seen were some late stragglers from the park, with a perambulator and some hot and dusty children lagging fretfully behind; some rustic sightseers draining the last dregs of the daylight in an effort to make out from their guide-books which of these reverend piles was which; a policeman and a builder's cart. Of course the club was a strange one, both of my own being closed for cleaning, a coincidence expressly planned by Providence for my inconvenience. The club which you are 'permitted to make use of' on these occasions always irritates with its strangeness and discomfort. The few occupants seem odd and oddly dressed, and you wonder how they got there. The particular weekly that you want is not taken in; the dinner is execrable, and the ventilation a farce. All these evils oppressed me to-night. And yet I was puzzled to find that somewhere within me there was a faint lightening of the spirits; causeless, as far as I could discover. It could not be Davies's letter. Yachting in the Baltic at the end of September! The very idea made one shudder. Cowes, with a pleasant party and hotels handy, was all very well. An August cruise on a steam yacht in French waters or the Highlands was all very well; but what kind of a yacht was this? It must be of a certain size to have got so far, but I thought I remembered enough of Davies's means to know that he had no money to waste on luxuries. That brought me to the man himself. I had known him at Oxford—not as one of my immediate set; but we were a sociable college, and I had seen a good deal of him, liking him for his physical energy combined with a certain simplicity and modesty, though, indeed, he had nothing to be conceited about; liked him, in fact, in the way that at that receptive period one likes many men whom one never keeps up with later. We had both gone down in the same year—three years ago now. I had gone to France and Germany for two years to learn the languages; he had failed for the Indian Civil, and then had gone into a solicitor's office. I had only seen him since at rare intervals, though I admitted to myself that for his part he had clung loyally to what ties of friendship there were between us. But the truth was that we had drifted apart from the nature of things. I had passed brilliantly into my profession, and on the few occasions I had met him since I made my triumphant début in society I had found nothing left in common between us. He seemed to know none of my friends, he dressed indifferently, and I thought him dull. I had always connected him with boats and the sea, but never with yachting, in the sense that I understood it. In college days he had nearly persuaded me into sharing a squalid week in some open boat he had picked up, and was going to sail among some dreary mud-flats somewhere on the east coast. There was nothing else, and the funereal function of dinner drifted on. But I found myself remembering at the entrée that I had recently heard, at second or third hand, of something else about him—exactly what I could not recall. When I reached the savoury, I had concluded, so far as I had centred my mind on it at all, that the whole thing was a culminating irony, as, indeed, was the savoury in its way. After the wreck of my pleasant plans and the fiasco of my martyrdom, to be asked as consolation to spend October freezing in the Baltic with an eccentric nonentity who bored me! Yet, as I smoked my cigar in the ghastly splendour of the empty smoking-room, the subject came up again. Was there anything in it? There were certainly no alternatives at hand. And to bury myself in the Baltic at this unearthly time of year had at least a smack of tragic thoroughness about it.

I pulled out the letter again, and ran down its impulsive staccato sentences, affecting to ignore what a gust of fresh air, high spirits, and good fellowship this flimsy bit of paper wafted into the jaded club-room. On reperusal, it was full of evil presage— 'A 1 scenery'—but what of equinoctial storms and October fogs? Every sane yachtsman was paying off his crew now. 'There ought to be duck'—vague, very vague. 'If it gets cold enough' . . . cold and yachting seemed to be a gratuitously monstrous union. His pals had left him; why? 'Not the "yachting" brand'; and why not? As to the size, comfort, and crew of the yacht—all cheerfully ignored; so many maddening blanks. And, by the way, why in Heaven's name 'a prismatic compass'? I fingered a few magazines, played a game of fifty with a friendly old fogey, too importunate to be worth the labour of resisting, and went back to my chambers to bed, ignorant that a friendly Providence had come to my rescue; and, indeed, rather resenting any clumsy attempt at such friendliness.