Part 6 out of 6
with no leisure to reconnoitre my ground; to be baffled again there,
probably, for you cannot always count on fogs (as Davies said). Esens
was another clue, and 'to follow Burmer'--there was something in that
notion. But I wanted time, and had I time? How long could Davies
maintain himself at Norderney? Not so very long, from what I
remembered of last night. And was he even safe there? A feverish
dream recurred to me--a dream of Davies in a diving-dress; of a
regrettable hitch in the air-supply--Stop, that was nonsense! ... Let
us be sane. What matter if he had to go? What matter if I took my
time in London? Then with a flood of shame I saw Davies's wistful
face on the quay, heard his grim ejaculation: 'He's our game or no
one's'; and my own sullen 'Oh, I'll keep the secret!' London was
utterly impossible. If I found my informant, what credentials had I,
what claim to confidences? None, unless I told the whole story. Why,
my mere presence in Whitehall would imperil the secret; for, once on
my native heath, I should be recognized--possibly haled to judgement;
at the best should escape in a cloud of rumour--'last heard of at
Norderney'; 'only this morning was raising Cain at the Admiralty
about a mythical lieutenant.' No! Back to Friesland, was the word.
One night's rest--I must have that--between sheets, on a feather bed;
one long, luxurious night, and then back refreshed to Friesland, to
finish our work in our own way, and with none but our own weapons.
Having reached this resolve, I was nearly putting it into instant
execution, by alighting at Amersfoort, but thought better of it. I
had a transformation to effect before I returned North, and the more
populous centre I made it in the less it was likely to attract
notice. Besides, I had in my mind's eye a perfect bed in a perfect
hostelry hard by the Amstel River. It was an economy in the end.
So, at half-past eight I was sipping my coffee in the aforesaid
hostelry, with a London newspaper before me, which was unusually
interesting, and some German journals, which, 'in hate of a wrong not
theirs', were one and all seething with rancorous Anglophobia. At
nine I was in the Jewish quarter, striking bargains in an infamous
marine slop-shop. At half-past nine I was despatching this
unscrupulous telegram to my chief--'Very sorry, could not call
Norderney; hope extension all right; please write to Hôtel du Louvre,
Paris.' At ten I was in the perfect bed, rapturously flinging my
limbs abroad in its glorious redundancies. And at 8.28 on the
following morning, with a novel chilliness about the upper lip, and a
vast excess of strength and spirits, I was sitting in a third-class
carriage, bound for Germany, and dressed as a young seaman, in a
pea-jacket, peaked cap, and comforter.
The transition had not been difficult. I had shaved off my moustache
and breakfasted hastily in my bedroom, ready equipped for a journey
in my ulster and cloth cap. I had dismissed the hotel porter at the
station, and left my bag at the cloak-room, after taking out of it an
umber bundle and substituting the ulster. The umber bundle, which
consisted of my oilskins, and within them my sea-boots and a few
other garments and necessaries, the whole tied up with a length of
tarry rope, was now in the rack above me, and (with a stout stick)
represented my luggage. Every article in it--I shudder at their
origin--was in strict keeping with my humble _métier,_ for I knew
they were liable to search at the frontier custom-house; but there
was a Baedeker of Northern Germany in my jacket pocket.
For the nonce, if questions were asked, I was an English seaman,
going to Emden to join a ship, with a ticket as far as the frontier.
Beyond that a definite scheme of action had still to be thought out.
One thing, however, was sure. I was determined to be at Norden
to-morrow night, the 25th. A word about Norden, which is a small town
seven miles south of Norddeich. When hurriedly scanning the map for
coast stations in the cabin yesterday, I had not thought of Norden,
because it did not appear to be on the coast, but Davies had noticed
it while I slept, and I now saw that his pencilled hint was a shrewd
one. The creek he spoke of, though barely visible on the map, _[see
Map B]_ flowed into the Ems Estuary in a south-westerly direction.
The 'night train' tallied to perfection, for high tide in the creek
would be, as Davies estimated, between 10.30 and 11 p.m. on the night
of the 25th; and the time-table showed that the only night train
arriving at Norden was one from the south at 10.46 p.m. This looked
promising. Emden, which I had inclined to on the spur of the moment,
was out of court in comparison, for many reasons; not the least being
that it was served by three trains between 9 p.m. and 1 a.m., so that
the phrase 'night train' would be ambiguous and not decisive as with
So far good; but how was I to spend the intervening time? Should I
act on Davies's 'querry' and go to Bremen after Böhme? I soon
dismissed that idea. It was one to act upon if others failed; for the
present it meant another scramble. Bremen is six hours from Norden by
rail. I should spend a disproportionate amount of my limited time in
trains, and I should want a different disguise. Besides, I had
already learnt something fresh about Böhme; for the seed dropped at
Emden Station yesterday had come to life. A submarine engineer I knew
him to be before; I now knew that canals were another branch of his
labours--not a very illuminating fact; but could I pick up more in a
There remained Esens, and it was thither I resolved to go tonight--a
tedious journey, lasting till past eight in the evening; but there I
should only be an hour from Norden by rail.
And at Esens?
All day long I strove for light on the central mystery, collecting
from my diary, my memory, my imagination, from the map, the
time-table, and Davies's grubby jottings, every elusive atom of
material. Sometimes I issued from a reverie with a start, to find a
phlegmatic Dutch peasant staring strangely at me over his china pipe.
I was more careful over the German border. Davies's paper I soon knew
by heart. I pictured him writing it with his cramped fist in his
corner by the stove, fighting against sleep, absently striking salvos
of matches, while 1 snored in my bunk; absently diverging into
dreams, I knew, of a rose-brown face under dewy hair and a grey
tam-o'-shanter; though not a word of her came into the document. I
smiled to see his undying faith in the 'channel theory' reconciled at
the eleventh hour, with new data touching the neglected 'land'.
The result was certainly interesting, but it left me cold. That there
existed in the German archives some such scheme of defence for the
North Sea coast was very likely indeed. The seven islands, with their
seven shallow channels (though, by the way, two of them, the twin
branches of the Ems, are by no means so shallow), were a very fair
conjecture, and fitted in admirably with the channel theory, whose
intrinsic merits I had always recognized; my constant objection
having been that it did not go nearly far enough to account for our
treatment. The ring of railway round the peninsula, with Esens at the
apex, was suggestive, too; but the same objection applied. Every
country with a maritime frontier has, I suppose, secret plans of
mobilization for its defence, but they are not such as could be
discovered by passing travellers, not such as would warrant stealthy
searches, or require for their elaboration so recondite a
meeting-place as Memmert. Dollmann was another weak point; Dollmann
in England, spying. All countries, Germany included, have spies in
their service, dirty though necessary tools; but Dollmann in such
intimate association with the principal plotters on this side;
Dollmann rich, influential, a power in local affairs--it was clear he
was no ordinary spy.
And here I detected a hesitation in Davies's rough sketch, a
reluctance, as it were, to pursue a clue to its logical end. He spoke
of a German scheme of coast defence, and in the next breath of
Dollmann spying for English plans in the event of war with Germany,
and there he left the matter; but what sort of plans? Obviously (if
he was on the right track) plans of attack on the German coast as
opposed to those of strategy on the high seas. But what sort of an
attack? Obviously again, if his railway-ring meant anything, an
attack by invasion on that remote and desolate littoral which he had
so often himself declared to be impregnably secure behind its web of
sands and shallows. My mind went back to my question at Bensersiel,
'Can this coast be invaded?' to his denial and our fruitless survey
of the dykes and polders. Was he now reverting to a fancy we had both
rejected, while shrinking from giving it explicit utterance? The
doubt was tantalizing.
A brief digression here about the phases of my journey. At Rheine 1
changed trains, turned due north and became a German seaman. There
was little risk in a defective accent--sailors are so polyglot; while
an English sailor straying about Esens might excite curiosity.
Yesterday I had paid no heed to the landscape; to-day I neglected
nothing that could conceivably supply a hint.
From Rheine to Emden we descended the valley of the Ems; at first
through a land of thriving towns and fat pastures, degenerating
farther north to spaces of heathery bog and moorland--a sad country,
but looking at its best, such as that was, for I should mention here
that the weather, which in the early morning had been as cold and
misty as ever, grew steadily milder and brighter as the day advanced;
while my newspaper stated that the glass was falling and the
anticyclone giving way to pressure from the Atlantic.
At Emden, where we entered Friesland proper, the train crossed a big
canal, and for the twentieth time that day (for we had passed numbers
of them in Holland, and not a few in Germany), I said to myself,
'Canals, canals. Where does Böhme come in?' It was dusk, but light
enough to see an unfamiliar craft, a torpedo-boat in fact, moored to
stakes at one side. In a moment I remembered that page in the North
Sea Pilot where the Ems-Jade Canal is referred to as deep enough to
carry gun-boats, and as used for that strategic purpose between
Wilhelmshaven and Emden, along the base, that is, of the Frisian
peninsula. I asked a peasant opposite; yes, that was the Ems-Jade
Canal. Had Davies forgotten it? It would have greatly strengthened
his halting sketch.
At the bookstall at Emden I bought a pocket ordnance map [There is.
of course, no space to reproduce this, but here and henceforward the
reader is referred to Map B.] of Friesland, on a much larger scale
than anything I had used before, and when I was unobserved studied
the course of the canal, with an impatience which, alas! quickly
cooled. From Emden northwards I used the same map to aid my eyesight,
and with its help saw in the gathering gloom more heaths and bogs
once a great glimmering lake, and at intervals cultivated tracts; a
watery land as ever; pools, streams and countless drains and ditches,
Extensive woods were marked also, but farther inland. We passed
Norden at seven, just dark. I looked out for the creek, and sure
enough, we crossed it just before entering the station. Its bed was
nearly dry, and I distinguished barges lying aground in it. This
being the junction for Esens, I had to wait three-quarters of an
hour, and then turned east through the uttermost northern wilds,
stopping at occasional village stations and keeping five or six miles
from the sea. It was during this stage, in a wretchedly lit
compartment, and alone for the most part, that I finally assembled
all my threads and tried to weave them into a cable whose core should
be Esens; 'a town', so Baedeker said, 'of 3,500 inhabitants, the
centre of a rich agricultural district. Fine spire.'
Esens is four miles inland from Bensersiel. I reviewed every
circumstance of that day at Bensersiel, and boiled to think how von
Brüning had tricked me. He had driven to Esens himself, and read me
so well that he actually offered to take me with him, and I had
refused from excess of cleverness. Stay, though; if I had happened to
accept he would have taken very good care that I saw nothing
important. The secret, therefore, was not writ large on the walls of
Esens. Was it connected with Bensersiel too, or the country between?
I searched the ordnance map again, standing up to get a better light
and less jolting. There was the road northwards from Esens to
Bensersiel, passing through dots and chess-board squares, the former
meaning fen, the latter fields, so the reference said. Something
else, too, immediately caught my eye, and that was a stream running
to Bensersiel. I knew it at once for the muddy stream or drain we had
seen at the harbour, issuing through the sluice or _siel_ from which
Bensersiel took its name. But it arrested my attention now because it
looked more prominent than I should have expected. Charts are apt to
ignore the geography of the mainland, except in so far as it offers
sea-marks to mariners. On the chart this stream had been shown as a
rough little corkscrew, like a sucking-pig's tail. On the ordnance
map it was marked with a dark blue line, was labelled 'Benser Tief',
and was given a more resolute course; bends became angles, and there
were what appeared to be artificial straightnesses at certain points.
One of the threads in my skein, the canal thread, tingled
sympathetically, like a wire charged with current. Standing astraddle
on both seats, with the map close to the lamp, I greedily followed
the course of the 'tief' southward. It inclined away from the road to
Esens and passed the town about a mile to the west, diving underneath
the railway. Soon after it took angular tacks to the eastward, and
joined another blue line trending south-east, and lettered
'Esens--Wittmunde _Canal_.' This canal, however, came to an abrupt
end halfway to Wittmund, a neighbouring town.
For the first time that day there came to me a sense of genuine
inspiration. Those shallow depths and short distances, fractions of
metres and kilometres, which I had overheard from Böhme's lips at
Memmert, and which Davies had attributed to the outside channels--did
they refer to a canal? I remembered seeing barges in Bensersiel
harbour. I remembered conversations with the natives in the inn,
scraps of the post-master's pompous loquacity, talks of growing
trade, of bricks and grain passing from the interior to the islands:
from another source--was it the grocer of Wangeroog?--of expansion of
business in the islands themselves as bathing resorts; from another
source again--von Brüning himself, surely--of Dollmann's personal
activity in the development of the islands. In obscure connexion with
these things, I saw the torpedo-boat in the Ems-Jade Canal.
It was between Dornum and Esens that these ideas came, and I was
still absorbed in them when the train drew up, just upon nine
o'clock, at my destination, and after ten minutes' walk, along with a
handful of other passengers, I found myself in the quiet cobbled
streets of Esens, with the great church steeple, that we had so often
seen from the sea, soaring above me in the moonlight.
26 The Seven Siels
SELECTING the very humblest _Gasthaus_ I could discover, I laid down
my bundle and called for beer, bread, and _Wurst._ The landlord, as I
had expected, spoke the Frisian dialect, so that though he was rather
difficult to understand, he had no doubts about the purity of my own
German high accent. He was a worthy fellow, and hospitably
interested: 'Did I want a bed?' 'No; I was going on to Bensersiel,' I
said, 'to sleep there, and take the morning _Postschiff_ to Langeoog
Island.' (I had not forgotten our friends the twin giants and their
functions.) 'I was not an islander myself?' he asked. 'No, but I had
a married sister there; had just returned from a year's voyaging, and
was going to visit her.' 'By the way,' I asked, 'how are they getting
on with the Benser Tief?' My friend shrugged his shoulders; it was
finished, he believed. 'And the connexion to Wittmund?' 'Under
construction still.' 'Langeoog would be going ahead then?' 'Oh! he
supposed so, but he did not believe in these new-fangled schemes.'
'But it was good for trade, I supposed? Esens would benefit in
sending goods by the "tief"--what was the traffic, by the way?' 'Oh,
a few more barge-loads than before of bricks, timber, coals, etc.,
but it would come to nothing _he_ knew: _Aktiengesellschaften_
(companies) were an invention of the devil. A few speculators got
them up and made money themselves out of land and contracts, while
the shareholders they had hoodwinked starved.' 'There's something in
that,' I conceded to this bigoted old conservative; 'my sister at
Langeoog rents her lodging-house from a man named Dollmann; they say
he owns a heap of land about. I saw his yacht once--pink velvet and
electric light inside. they say--'
'That's the name,' said mine host, 'that's one of them--some sort of
foreigner, I've heard; runs a salvage concern, too, Juist way.'
'Well, he won't get any of my savings!' I laughed, and soon after
took my leave, and inquired from a passer-by the road to Dornum.
'Follow the railway,' I was told.
With a warm wind in my face from the south-west, fleecy clouds and a
half-moon overhead, I set out, not for Bensersiel but for Benser
Tief, which I knew must cross the road to Dornum somewhere. A mile or
so of cobbled causeway flanked with ditches and willows, and running
cheek by jowl with the railway track; then a bridge, and below me the
'Tief'; which was, in fact, a small canal. A rutty track left the
road, and sloped down to it one side; a rough siding left the
railway, and sloped down to it on the other.
I lit a pipe and sat on the parapet for a little. No one was
stirring, so with great circumspection I began to reconnoitre the
left bank to the north. The siding entered a fenced enclosure by a
locked gate--a gate I could have easily climbed, but I judged it
wiser to go round by the bridge again and look across. The enclosure
was a small coal-store, nothing more; there were gaunt heaps of coal
glittering in the moonlight; a barge half loaded lying alongside, and
a deserted office building. I skulked along a sandy towpath in
solitude. Fens and field were round me, as the map had said; willows
and osier-beds; the dim forms of cattle; the low melody of wind
roaming unfettered over a plain; once or twice the flutter and quack
of a startled wild-duck.
Presently I came to a farmhouse, dark and silent; opposite it. in the
canal, a couple of empty barges. I climbed into one of these, and
sounded with my stick on the off-side--barely three feet; and the
torpedo-boat melted out of my speculations. The stream, I observed
also, was only just wide enough for two barges to pass with comfort.
Other farms I saw, or thought I saw, and a few more barges lying in
side-cuts linked by culverts to the canal, but nothing noteworthy;
and mindful that I had to explore the Wittmund side of the railway
too, I turned back, already a trifle damped in spirits, but still
Passing under the road and railway, I again followed the tow-path,
which, after half a mite, plunged into woods, then entered a clearing
and another fenced enclosure; a timber-yard by the look of it. This
time I stripped from the waist downward, waded over, dressed again,
and climbed the paling. (There was a cottage standing back, but its
occupants evidently slept.) I was in a timber-yard, by the stacks of
wood and the steam saw-mill; but something more than a timber-yard,
for as I warily advanced under the shadow of the trees at the edge of
the clearing I came to a long tin shed which strangely reminded me of
Memmert, and below it, nearer the canal, loomed a dark skeleton
framework, which proved to be a half-built vessel on stocks. Close by
was a similar object, only nearly completed--a barge. A paved slipway
led to the water here, and the canal broadened to a siding or
back-water in which lay seven or eight more barges in tiers. I scaled
another paling and went on, walking, I should think, three miles by
the side of the canal, till the question of bed and ulterior plans
brought me to a halt. It was past midnight, and I was adding little
to my information. I had encountered a brick-field, but soon after
that there was increasing proof that the canal was as yet little used
for traffic. In grew narrower, and there were many signs of recent
labour for its improvement. In one place a dammed-off deviation was
being excavated, evidently to abridge an impossible bend. The path
had become atrocious, and my boots were heavy with clay. Bearing in
mind the abruptly-ending blue line on the map, I considered it
useless to go farther, and retraced my steps, trying to concoct a
story which would satisfy an irritable Esens inn-keeper that it was a
respectable wayfarer, and not a tramp or a lunatic, who knocked him
up at half-past one or thereabouts.
But a much more practical resource occurred to me as I approached the
timber-yard; for lodging, free and accessible, lay there ready to
hand. I boarded one of the empty barges in the backwater, and
surveyed my quarters for the night. It was of a similar pattern to
all the others I had seen; a lighter, strictly, in the sense that it
had no means of self-propulsion, and no separate quarters for a crew,
the whole interior of the hull being free for cargo. At both bow and
stern there were ten feet or so of deck, garnished with bitts and
bollards. The rest was an open well, flanked by waterways of
substantial breadth; the whole of stout construction and, for a
humble lighter, of well-proportioned and even graceful design, with a
marked forward sheer, and, as I had observed in the specimen on the
stocks, easy lines at the stern. In short, it was apparent, even to
an ignorant landsman like myself, that she was designed not merely
for canal work but for rough water; and well she might be, for,
though the few miles of sea she had to cross in order to reach the
islands were both shallow and sheltered, I knew from experience what
a vicious surf they could be whipped into by a sudden gale. It must
not be supposed that I dwelt on this matter. On limited lines I was
making progress, but the wings of imagination still drooped
nervelessly at my sides. Otherwise I perhaps should have examined
this lighter more particularly, instead of regarding it mainly as a
convenient hiding-place. Under the stern-deck was stored a massive
roll of tarpaulin, a corner of which made an excellent blanket, and
my bundle a good pillow. It was a descent from the luxury of last
night; but a spy, I reflected philosophically, cannot expect a
feather bed two nights running, and this one was at any rate airier
and roomier than the coffin-like bunk of the Dulcibella, and not so
very much harder.
When snugly ensconced, I studied the map by intermittent match-light.
It had been dawning on me in the last half-hour that this canal was
only one of several; that in concentrating myself on Esens and
Bensersiel, I had forgotten that there were other villages ending in
siel, also furnished on the chart with corkscrew streams; and,
moreover, that Böhme's statistics of depth and distance had been
marshalled in seven categories, A to G. The very first match brought
full recollection as to the villages. The suffix _siel_ repeated
itself all round the coast-line. Five miles eastward of Bensersiel
was Neuharlingersiel, and farther on Carolinensiel. Four miles
westward was Dornumersiel; and farther on Nessmersiel and
Hilgenriedersiel. That was six on the north coast of the peninsula
alone. On the west coast, facing the Ems, there was only one,
Greetsiel, a good way south of Norden. But on the east, facing the
Jade, there were no less than eight, at very close intervals. A
moment's thought and I disregarded this latter group; they had
nothing to do with Esens, nor had they any imaginable _raison d'étre_
as veins for commerce; differing markedly in this respect from the
group of six on the north coast, whose outlook was the chain of
islands, and whose inland centre, almost exactly, was Esens. I still
wanted one to make seven, and as a working hypothesis added the
solitary Greetsiel. At all seven villages streams debouched, as at
Bensersiel. From all seven points of issue dotted lines were marked
seaward, intersecting the great tidal sands and leading towards the
islands. And on the mainland behind the whole sevenfold system ran
the loop of railway. But there were manifold minor points of
difference. No stream boasted so deep and decisive a blue lintel as
did Benser Tief; none penetrated so far into the Hinterland. They
varied in length and sinuosity. Two, those belonging to
Hilgenriedersiel and Greetsiel, appeared not to reach the railway at
all. On the other hand, Carolinensiel, opposite Wangeroog Island, had
a branch line all to itself.
Match after match waxed and waned as I puzzled over the mystic seven.
In the end I puzzled myself to sleep, with the one fixed idea that
to-morrow, on my way back to Norden, I must see more of these budding
canals, if such they were. My dreams that night were of a mighty
chain of redoubts and masked batteries couching _perdus_ among the
sand-dunes of desolate islets; built, coral-like, by infinitely slow
and secret labour; fed by lethal cargoes borne in lighters and in
charge of stealthy mutes who, one and all, bore the likeness of
Grimm. I was up and away at daylight (the weather mild and showery),
meeting some navvies on my way back to the road, who gave me good
morning and a stare. On the bridge I halted and fell into torments of
indecision. There was so much to do and so little time to do it in.
The whole problem seemed to have been multiplied by seven, and the
total again doubled and redoubled--seven blue lines on land, seven
dotted lines on the sea, seven islands in the offing. Once I was near
deciding to put my pretext into practice, and cross to Langeoog; but
that meant missing the rendezvous, and I was loth to do that.
At any rate, I wanted breakfast badly; and the best way to get it,
and at the same time to open new ground, was to walk to Dornum. Then
I should find a blue line called the _Neues Tief_ leading to
Dornumersiel, on the coast. That explored, I could pass on to Nesse,
where there was another blue line to Nessmersiel. All this was on the
way to Norden, and I should have the railway constantly at my back,
to carry me there in the evening. The last train (my time-table told
me) was one reaching Norden at 7.15 p.m. I could catch this at Hage
Station at 7.5.
A brisk walk of six miles brought me, ravenously hungry, to Dornum.
Road and railway had clung together all the time, and about half-way
had been joined on the left by a third companion in the shape of a
puny stream which I knew from the map to be the upper portion of
Neues Tief. Wriggling and doubling like an eel, choked with sedges
and reeds, it had no pretensions to being navigable. At length it
looped away into the fens out of sight, only to reappear again close
to Dornum in a much more dignified guise.
There was no siding where the railway crossed it, but at the town
itself, which it skirted on the east, a towpath began, and a piled
wharf had been recently constructed. Going on to this was a red-brick
building with the look of a warehouse, roofless as yet, and with
workmen on its scaffolds. It sharpened the edge of my appetite.
If I had been wise I should have been content with a snack bought at
a counter, but a thirst for hot coffee and clues induced me to repeat
the experiment of Esens and seek a primitive beer-house. I was less
lucky on this occasion. The house I chose was obscure enough, but its
proprietor was no simple Frisian, but an ill-looking rascal with
shifty eyes and a debauched complexion, who showed a most unwelcome
curiosity in his customer. As a last fatality, he wore a peaked cap
like my own, and turned out to be an ex-sailor. I should have fled at
the sight of him had I had the chance, but I was attended to first by
a slatternly girl who, I am sure, called him up to view me. To
explain my muddy boots and trousers I said I had walked from Esens,
and from that I found myself involved in a tangle of impromptu lies.
Floundering down an old groove, I placed my sister this time on
Baltrum Island, and said I was going to Dornumersiel (which is
opposite Baltrum) to cross from there. As this was drawing a bow at a
venture, I dared not assume local knowledge, and spoke of the visit
as my first. Dornumersiel was a lucky shot; there _was_ a
ferry-galliot from there to Baltrum; but he knew, or pretended to
know, Baltrum, and had not heard of my sister. I grew the more
nervous in that I saw from the first that he took me to be of better
condition than most merchant seamen; and, to make matters worse, I
was imprudent enough in pleading haste to pull out from an inner
pocket my gold watch with the chain and seals attached. He told me
there was no hurry, that I should miss the tide at Dornumersiel, and
then fell to pressing strong waters on me, and asking questions whose
insinuating grossness gave me the key to his biography: He must have
been at one stage in his career a dock-side crimp, one of those foul
sharks who prey on discharged seamen, and as often as not are
ex-seamen themselves, versed in the weaknesses of the tribe. He was
now keeping his hand in with me, who, unhappily, purported to belong
to the very class he was used to victimize, and, moreover, had a gold
watch, and, doubtless, a full purse. Nothing more ridiculously
inopportune could have befallen me, or more dangerous; for his class
are as cosmopolitan as waiters and _concierges,_ with as facile a
gift for language and as unerring a scent for nationality. Sure
enough, the fellow recognized mine, and positively challenged me with
it in fairly fluent English with a Yankee twang. Encumbered with the
mythical sister, of course I stuck to my lie, said I had been on an
English ship so long that I had picked up the accent, and also gave
him some words in broken English. At the same time I showed I thought
him an impertinent nuisance, paid my score and walked out--quit of
him? Not a bit of it! He insisted on showing me the way to
Dornumersiel, and followed me down the street. Perceiving that he was
in liquor, in spite of the early hour, I dared not risk a quarrelsome
scene with a man who already knew so much about me, and might at any
moment elicit more. So I melted, and humoured him; treated him in a
ginshop in the hope of giving him the slip--a disastrous resource,
which was made a precedent for further potations elsewhere. I would
gladly draw a veil over our scandalous progress through peaceable
Dornum, of the terrors I experienced when he introduced me as his
friend, and as his English friend, and of the abasement I felt, too,
as, linked arm in arm, we trod the three miles of road coastwards. It
was his malicious whim that we should talk English; a fortunate whim,
as it turned out, because I knew no fo'c'sle German, but had a
smattering of fo'c'sle English, gathered from Cutcliffe Hyne and
Kipling. With these I extemporized a disreputable hybrid, mostly
consisting of oaths and blasphemies, and so yarned of imaginary
voyages. Of course he knew every port in the world, but happily was
none too critical, owing to repeated _schnappsen._
Nevertheless, it was a deplorable _contretemps_ from every point of
view. I was wasting my time, for the road took a different direction
to the Neues Tief, so that I had not even the advantage of inspecting
the canal and only met with it when we reached the sea. Here it split
into two mouths, both furnished with locks, and emptying into two
little mud-hole harbours, replicas of Bensersiel, each owning its
cluster of houses. I made straight for the _Gasthaus_ at
Dornumersiel, primed my companion well, and asked him to wait while I
saw about a boat in the harbour; but, needless to say, I never
rejoined him. I just took a cursory look at the left-hand harbour,
saw a lighter locking through (for the tide was high), and then
walked as fast as my legs would carry me to the outermost dyke,
mounted it, and strode along the sea westwards in the teeth of a
smart shower of rain, full of deep apprehensions as to the stir and
gossip my disappearance might cause if my odious crimp was sober
enough to discover it. As soon as I deemed it safe, I dropped on to
the sand and ran till I could run no more. Then I sat on my bundle
with my back to the dyke in partial shelter from the rain, watching
the sea recede from the flats and dwindle into slender meres, and the
laden clouds fly weeping over the islands till those pale shapes were
lost in mist.
The barge I had seen locking through was creeping across towards
Langeoog behind a tug and a wisp of smoke.
No more exploration by daylight! That was my first resolve, for I
felt as if the country must be ringing with reports of an Englishman
in disguise. I must remain in hiding till dusk, then regain the
railway and slink into that train to Norden. Now directly I began to
resign myself to temporary inaction, and to centre my thoughts on the
rendezvous, a new doubt assailed me. Nothing had seemed more certain
yesterday than that Norden was the scene of the rendezvous, but that
was before the seven _siels_ had come into prominence. The name
Norden now sounded naked and unconvincing. As I wondered why, it
suddenly occurred to me that _all_ the stations along this northern
line, though farther inland than Norden, were equally 'coast
stations', in the sense that they were in touch with harbours (of a
sort) on the coast. Norden had its tidal creek, but Esens and Dornum
had their 'tiefs' or canals. Fool that I had been to put such a
narrow and literal construction on the phrase 'the tide serves!'
Which was it more likely that my conspirators would visit--Norden,
whose intrusion into our theories was purely hypothetical, or one of
these _siels_ to whose sevenfold systems all my latest observations
gave such transcendent significance?
There was only one answer; and it filled me with profound
discouragement. Seven possible rendezvous!--eight, counting Norden.
Which to make for? Out came the time-table and map, and with them
hope. The case was not so bad after all; it demanded no immediate
change of plan, though it imported grave uncertainties and risks.
Norden was still the objective, but mainly as a railway junction,
only remotely as a seaport. Though the possible rendezvous were
eight, the possible stations were reduced to five--Norden, Hage,
Dornum, Esens, Wittmund--all on one single line. Trains from east to
west along this line were negligible, because there were none that
could be called night trains, the latest being the one I had this
morning fixed on to bring me to Norden, where it arrived at 7.15. Of
trains from west to east there was only one that need be considered,
the same one that I had travelled by last night, leaving Norden at
7.43 and reaching Esens at 8.50, and Wittmund at 9.13. This train, as
the reader who was with me in it knows, was in correspondence with
another from Emden and the south, and also, I now found, with
services from Hanover, Bremen, and Berlin. He will also remember that
I had to wait three-quarters of an hour at Norden, from 7 to 7.43.
The platform at Norden Junction, therefore, between 7.15, when I
should arrive at it _from_ the east, and 7.43 when Böhme and his
unknown friend should leave it _for_ the east; there, and in that
half-hour, was my opportunity for recognizing and shadowing two at
least of the conspirators. I must take the train they took, and
alight where they alighted. If I could not find them at all I should
be thrown back on the rejected view that Norden itself was the
rendezvous, and should wait there till 10.46.
In the meantime it was all very well to resolve on inaction till
dusk; but after an hour's rest, damp clothes and feet, and the
absence of pursuers, tempted me to take the field again. Avoiding
roads and villages as long as it was light, I cut across country
south-westwards--a dismal and laborious journey, with oozy fens and
knee-deep drains to course, with circuits to be made to pass clear of
peasants, and many furtive crouchings behind dykes and willows. What
little I learnt was in harmony with previous explorations, for my
track cut at right angles the line of the Harke Tief, the stream
issuing at Nessmersiel. It, too, was in the nature of a canal, but
only in embryo at the point I touched it, south of Nesse. Works on a
deviation were in progress, and in a short digression down stream I
sighted another lighter-building yard. As for Hilgenriedersiel, the
fourth of the seven, I had no time to see anything of it at all. At
seven o'clock I was at Hage Station, very tired, wet, and footsore,
after covering nearly twenty miles all told since I left my bed in
From here to Norden it was a run in the train of ten minutes, which I
spent in eating some rye bread and smoked eel, and in scraping the
mud off my boots and trousers. Fatigue vanished when the train drew
up at the station, and the momentous twenty-eight minutes began to
run their course. Having donned a bulky muffler and turned up the
collar of my pea-jacket, I crossed over immediately to the
up-platform, walked boldly to the booking-office, and at once
sighted--von Brüning--yes, von Brüning in mufti; but there was no
mistaking his tall athletic figure, pleasant features, and neat brown
beard. He was just leaving the window, gathering up a ticket and some
coins. I joined a _queue_ of three or four persons who were waiting
their turn, flattened myself between them and the partition till I
heard him walk out. Not having heard what station he had booked for,
I took a fourth-class ticket to Wittmund, which covered all chances.
Then, with my chin buried in my muffler, I sought the darkest corner
of the ill-lit combination of bar and waiting-room where, by the
tiresome custom in Germany, would-be travellers are penned till their
train is ready. Von Brüning I perceived sitting in another corner,
with his hat over his eyes and a cigar between his lips. A boy
brought me a tankard of tawny Munich beer, and, sipping it, I
watched. People passed in and out, but nobody spoke to the sailor in
mufti. When a quarter of an hour elapsed, a platform door opened, and
a raucous voice shouted: 'Hage, Dornum, Esens, Wittmund!' A knot of
passengers jostled out to the platform, showing their tickets. I was
slow over my beer, and was last of the knot, with von Brüning
immediately ahead of me, so close that his cigar smoke curled into my
face. I looked over his shoulder at the ticket he showed, missed the
name, but caught a muttered double sibilant from the official who
checked it; ran over the stations in my head, and pounced on _Esens._
That was as much I wanted to know for the present; so I made my way
to a fourth-class compartment, and lost sight of my quarry, not
venturing, till the last door had banged, to look out of the window.
When I did so two late arrivals were hurrying up to a carriage--one
tall, one of middle height; both in cloaks and comforters. Their
features I could not distinguish, but certainly neither of them was
Böhme. They had not come through the waiting-room door, but, plainly,
from the dark end of the platform, where they had been waiting. A
guard, with some surly remonstrances, shut them in, and the train
Esens--the name had not surprised me; it fulfilled a presentiment
that had been growing in strength all the afternoon. For the last
time I referred to the map, pulpy and blurred with the day's
exposure, and tried to etch it into my brain. I marked the road to
Bensersiel, and how it converged by degrees on the Benser Tief until
they met at the sea. 'The tide serves!' Longing for Davies to help
me, I reckoned, by the aid of my diary, that high tide at Bensersiel
would be about eleven, and for two hours, I remembered (say from ten
to twelve to-night), there were from five to six feet of water in the
We should reach Esens at 8.50. Would they drive, as von Brüning had
done a week ago? I tightened my belt, stamped my mud-burdened boots,
and thanked God for the Munich beer. Whither were they going from
Bensersiel, and in what; and how was I to follow them? These were
nebulous questions, but I was in fettle for anything; boat-stealing
was a bagatelle. Fortune, I thought, smiled; Romance beckoned; even
the sea looked kind. Ay, and I do not know but that Imagination was
already beginning to unstiffen and flutter those nerveless wings.
27 The Luck of the Stowaway
AT Esens Station I reversed my Norden tactics, jumped out smartly,
and got to the door of egress first of all, gave up my ticket, and
hung about the gate of the station under cover of darkness. Fortune
smiled still; there was no vehicle in waiting at all, and there were
only half a dozen passengers. Two of these were the cloaked gentlemen
who had been so nearly left behind at Norden, and another was von
Brüning. The latter walked well in advance of the first pair, but at
the gate on to the high road the three showed a common purpose, in
that, unlike the rest, who turned towards Esens town, they turned
southwards; much to my perplexity, for this was the contrary
direction to Bensersiel and the sea. I, with my bundle on my
shoulder, had been bringing up the rear, and, as their faithful
shadow, turned to the right too, without foreseeing the consequence.
When it was too late to turn back I saw that, fifty yards ahead, the
road was barred by the gates of a level crossing, and that the four
of us must inevitably accumulate at the barrier till the train had
steamed away. This, in fact, happened, and for a minute or two we
were all in a group, elaborately indifferent to one another, silent,
but I am sure very conscious. As for me, 'secret laughter tickled all
my soul'. When the gates were opened the three seemed disposed to
lag, so I tactfully took my cue, trudged briskly on ahead, and
stopped after a few minutes to listen. Hearing nothing I went
cautiously back and found that they had disappeared; in which
direction was not long in doubt, for I came on a grassy path leading
into the fields on the left or west of the road, and though I could
see no one I heard the distant murmur of receding voices.
I took my bearings collectedly, placed one foot on the path, thought
better of it, and turned back towards Esens. I knew without reference
to the map that that path would bring them to the Benser Tief at a
point somewhere near the timber-yard. In a fog I might have followed
them there; as it was, the night was none too dark, and I had my
strength to husband; and stamped on my memory were the words 'the
tide serves'. I judged it a wiser use of time and sinew to anticipate
them at Bensersiel by the shortest road, leaving them to reach it by
way of the devious Tief, to examine which was, I felt convinced, one
of their objects.
It was nine o'clock of a fresh wild night, a halo round the beclouded
moon. I passed through quiet Esens, and in an hour I was close to
Bensersiel, and could hear the sea. In the rooted idea that I should
find Grimm on the outskirts, awaiting visitors, I left the road short
of the village, and made a circuit to the harbour by way of the
sea-wall. The lower windows of the inn shed a warm glow into the
night, and within I could see the village circle gathered over cards,
and dominated as of old by the assertive little postmaster, whose
high-pitched, excitable voice I could clearly distinguish, as he sat
with his cap on the back of his head and a 'feine schnapps' at his
elbow. The harbour itself looked exactly the same as I remembered it
a week ago. The post-boat lay in her old berth at the eastern jetty,
her mainsail set and her twin giants spitting over the rail. I hailed
them boldly from the shore (without showing them who I was), and was
told they were starting for Langeoog in a few minutes; the wind was
off-shore, the mails aboard, and the water just high enough. 'Did I
want a passage?' 'No, I thought I would wait.' Positive that my party
could never have got here so soon, I nevertheless kept an eye on the
galliot till she let go her stern-rope and slid away. One contingency
was eliminated. Some loiterers dispersed, and all port business
appeared to be ended for the night.
Three-quarters of an hour of strained suspense ensued. Most of it I
spent on my knees in a dark angle between the dyke and the western
jetty, whence I had a strategic survey of the basin; but I was driven
at times to relieve inaction by sallies which increased in audacity.
I scouted on the road beyond the bridge, hovered round the lock, and
peered in at the inn parlour; but nowhere could I see a trace of
Grimm. I examined every floating object in the harbour (they were
very few), dropped on to two lighters and pried under tarpaulins,
boarded a deserted tug and two or three clumsy rowboats tied up to a
mooring-post. Only one of these had the look of readiness, the rest
being devoid of oars and rowlocks; a discouraging state of things for
a prospective boat-lifter. It was the sight of these rowboats that
suggested a last and most distracting possibility, namely, that the
boat in waiting, if boat there were, might be not in the harbour at
all, but somewhere on the sands outside the dyke, where, at this high
state of the tide, it would have water and to spare. Back to the dyke
then; but as I peered seaward on the way, contingencies evaporated
and a solid fact supervened, for I saw the lights of a steamboat
approaching the harbour mouth. I had barely time to gain my coign of
vantage before she had swept in between the piers, and with a fitful
swizzling of her screw was turning and backing down to a berth just
ahead of one of the lighters, and not fifty feet from my
hiding-place. A deck-hand jumped ashore with a rope, while the man at
the wheel gave gruff directions. The vessel was a small tug, and the
man at the wheel disclosed his identity when, having rung off his
engines, he jumped ashore also, looked at his watch in the beam of
the sidelight, and walked towards the village. It was Grimm, by the
height and build--Grimm clad in a long tarpaulin coat and a
sou'wester. I watched him cross the shaft of light from the inn
window and disappear in the direction of the canal.
Another sailor now appeared and helped his fellow to tie up the tug.
The two together then went aft and began to set about some job whose
nature I could not determine. To emerge was perilous, so I set about
a job of my own, tearing open my bundle and pulling an oilskin jacket
and trousers over my clothes, and discarding my peaked cap for a
sou'-wester. This operation was prompted instantaneously by the garb
of two sailors, who in hauling on the forward warp came into the
field of the mast-head light.
It was something of a gymnastic masterpiece, since I was lying--or,
rather, standing aslant--on the rough sea-wall, with crannies of
brick for foothold and the water plashing below me; but then I had
not lived in the Dulcibella for nothing. My chain of thought, I
fancy, was this--the tug is to carry my party; I cannot shadow a tug
in a rowboat, yet I intend to shadow my party; I must therefore go
with them in the tug, and the first and soundest step is to mimic her
crew. But the next step was a hard matter, for the crew having
finished their job sat side by side on the bulwarks and lit their
pipes. However, a little pantomime soon occurred, as amusing as it
was inspiriting. They seemed to consult together, looking from the
tug to the inn and from the inn to the tug. One of them walked a few
paces inn-wards and beckoned to the other, who in his turn called
something down the engine-room skylight, and then joined his mate in
a scuttle to the inn. Even while I watched the pantomime I was
sliding off my boots, and it had not been consummated a second before
I had them in my arms and was tripping over the mud in my stocking
feet. A dozen noiseless steps and I was over the bulwarks between the
wheel and the smoke-stack, casting about for a hiding-place. The
conventional stowaway hides in the hold, but there was only a
stokehold here, occupied moreover; nor was there an empty
apple-barrel, such as Jim of Treasure Island found so useful. As far
as I could see--and I dared not venture far for fear of the
skylight--the surface of the deck offered nothing secure. But on the
farther or starboard side, rather abaft the beam, there was a small
boat in davits, swung outboard, to which common sense, and perhaps a
vague prescience of its after utility, pointed irresistibly. In any
case, discrimination was out of place, so I mounted the bulwark and
gently entered my refuge. The tackles creaked a trifle, oars and
seats impeded me; but well before the thirsty truants had returned I
was settled on the floor boards between two thwarts, so placed that I
could, if necessary, peep over the gunwale.
The two sailors returned at a run, and very soon after voices
approached, and I recognized that of Herr Schenkel chattering
volubly. He and Grimm boarded the tug and went down a companion-way
aft, near which, as I peeped over, I saw a second skylight, no bigger
than the Dulcibella's, illuminated from below. Then I heard a cork
drawn, and the kiss of glasses, and in a minute or two they
re-emerged. It was apparent that Herr Schenkel was inclined to stay
and make merry, and that Grimm was anxious to get rid of him, and
none too courteous in showing it. The former urged that to-morrow's
tide would do, the latter gave orders to cast off, and at length
observed with an angry oath that the water was falling, and he must
start; and, to clinch matters, with a curt good-night, he went to the
wheel and rang up his engines. Herr Schenkel landed and strutted off
in high dudgeon, while the tug's screw began to revolve. We had only
glided a few yards on when the engines stopped, a short blast of the
whistle sounded, and, before I had had time to recast the future, I
heard a scurry of footsteps from the direction of the dyke, first on
the bank, next on the deck. The last of these new arrivals panted
audibly as he got aboard and dropped on the planks with an unelastic
Her complement made up, the tug left the harbour, but not alone.
While slowly gathering way the hull checked all at once with a sharp
jerk, recovered, and increased its speed. We had something in
tow--what? The lighter, of course, that had been lying astern of us.
Now I knew what was in that lighter, because I had been to see, half
an hour ago. It was no lethal cargo, but coal, common household coal;
not a full load of it, I remembered--just a good-sized mound
amidships, trimmed with battens fore and aft to prevent shifting.
'Well,' thought I, 'this is intelligible enough. Grimm was ostensibly
there to call for a load of coal for Memmert. But does that mean we
are going to Memmert?' At the same time I recalled a phrase overheard
at the depot, 'Only one--half a load.' Why half a load?
For some few minutes there was a good deal of movement on deck, and
of orders shouted by Grimm and answered by a voice from far astern on
the lighter. Presently, however, the tug warmed to her work, the hull
vibrated with energy, and an ordered peace reigned on board. I also
realized that having issued from the boomed channel we had turned
westward, for the wind, which had been blowing us fair, now blew
strongly over the port beam.
I peeped out of my eyrie and was satisfied in a moment that as long
as I made no noise, and observed proper prudence, I was perfectly
safe _until the boat was wanted_. There were no deck lamps; the two
skylights diffused but a sickly radiance, and I was abaft the
side-lights. I was abaft the wheel also, though thrillingly near it
in point of distance--about twelve feet, I should say; and Grimm was
steering. The wheel, I should mention here, was raised, as you often
see them, on a sort of pulpit, approached by two or three steps and
fenced by a breasthigh arc of boarding. Only one of the crew was
visible, and he was acting as look-out in the extreme bows, the rays
of the masthead lights--for a second had been hoisted in sign of
towage--glistening on his oilskin back. The other man, I concluded,
was steering the lighter, which I could dimly locate by the pale foam
at her bow.
And the passengers? They were all together aft, three of them,
leaning over the taffrail, with their backs turned to me. One was
short and stout--Böhme unquestionably; the panting and the thud on
the planks had prepared me for that, though where he had sprung from
I did not know. Two were tall, and one of these must be von Brüning.
There ought to be four, I reckoned; but three were all I could see.
And what of the third? It must be he who 'insists on coming', the
unknown superior at whose instance and for whose behoof this secret
expedition had been planned. And who could he be? Many times,
needless to say, I had asked myself that question, but never till
now, when I had found the rendezvous and joined the expedition, did
it become one of burning import.
'Any weather' was another of those stored-up phrases that were
_apropos._ It was a dirty, squally night, not very cold, for the wind
still hung in the S.S.W.--an off-shore wind on this coast, causing no
appreciable sea on the shoal spaces we were traversing. In the matter
of our bearings, I set myself doggedly to overcome that paralysing
perplexity, always induced in me by night or fog in these intricate
waters; and, by screwing round and round, succeeded so far as to
discover and identify two flashing lights--one alternately red and
white, far and faint astern; the other right ahead and rather
stronger, giving white flashes only. The first and least familiar
was, I made out, from the lighthouse on Wangeroog; the second, well
known to me as our beacon star in the race from Memmert, was the
light on the centre of Norderney Island, about ten miles away.
I had no accurate idea of the time, for I could not see my watch, but
I thought we must have started about a quarter past eleven. We were
travelling fast, the funnel belching out smoke and the bow-wave
curling high; for the tug appeared to be a powerful little craft, and
her load was comparatively light.
So much for the general situation. As for my own predicament, I was
in no mood to brood on the hazards of this mad adventure, a
hundredfold more hazardous than my fog-smothered eavesdropping at
Memmert. The crisis, I knew, had come, and the reckless impudence
that had brought me here must serve me still and extricate me.
Fortune loves rough wooing. I backed my luck and watched.
The behaviour of the passengers struck me as odd. They remained in a
row at the taffrail, gazing astern like regretful emigrants, and
sometimes, gesticulating and pointing. Now no vestige of the low land
was visible, so I was driven to the conclusion that it was the
lighter they were discussing; and I date my awakening from the moment
that I realized this. But the thread broke prematurely; for the
passengers took to pacing the deck, and I had to lie low. When next I
was able to raise my head they were round Grimm at the wheel,
engaged, as far as I could discover from their gestures, in an
argument about our course and the time, for Grimm looked at his watch
by the light of a hand-lantern.
We were heading north, and I knew by the swell that we must be near
the Accumer Ee, the gap between Langeoog and Baltrum. Were we going
out to open sea? It came over me with a rush that we _must,_ if we
were to drop this lighter at Memmert. Had I been Davies I should have
been quicker to seize certain rigid conditions of this cruise, which
no human power could modify. We had left after high tide. The water
therefore was falling everywhere; and the tributary channels in rear
of the islands were slowly growing impassable. It was quite thirty
miles to Memmert, with three watersheds to pass; behind Baltrum,
Norderney, and Juist. A skipper with nerve and perfect confidence
might take us over one of these in the dark, but most of the run
would infallibly have to be made outside. I now better understood the
protests of Herr Schenkel to Grimm. Never once had we seen a lighter
in tow in the open sea, though plenty behind the barrier of islands;
indeed it was the very existence of the sheltered byways that created
such traffic as there was. It was only Grimm's _métier_ and the
incubus of the lighter that had suggested Memmert as our destination
at all, and I began to doubt it now. That tricky hoop of sand had
befooled us before.
At this moment, and as if to corroborate my thought, the telegraph
rang and the tug slowed down. I effaced myself and heard Grimm
shouting to the man on the lighter to starboard his helm, and to the
look-out to come aft. The next order froze my very marrow; it was
'lower away'. Someone was at the davits of my boat fingering the
tackles; the forward fall-rope actually slipped in the block and
tilted the boat a fraction. I was just wondering how far it was to
swim to Langeoog, when a strong, imperious voice (unknown to me) rang
out, 'No, no! We don't want the boat. The swell's nothing; we can
jump! Can't we, Böhme?' The speaker ended with a jovial laugh.
'Mercy!' thought I, 'are _they_ going to swim to Langeoog?' but I
also gasped for relief. The tug rolled lifelessly in the swell for a
little, and footsteps retreated aft. There were cries of 'Achtung!'
and some laughter, one big bump and a good deal of grinding; and on
we moved again, taking the strain of the tow-rope gingerly, and then
full-speed ahead. The passengers, it seemed, preferred the lighter to
the tug for cruising in; coal-dust and exposure to clean planks and a
warm cuddy. When silence reigned again I peeped out. Grimm was at the
wheel still, impassively twirling the spokes, with a glance over his
shoulder at his precious freight. And, after all, we _were_ going
Close on the port hand lay a black foam-girt shape, the east of spit
Baltrum. It fused with the night, while we swung slowly round to
windward over the troubled bar. Now we were in the spacious deeps of
the North Sea; and feeling it too in increase of swell and volleys of
At this point evolutions began. Grimm gave the wheel up to the
look-out, and himself went to the taffrail, whence he roared back
orders of 'Port!' or 'Starboard!' in response to signals from the
lighter. We made one complete circle, steering on each point of the
wind in succession, after that worked straight out to sea till the
water was a good deal rougher, and back again at a tangent, till in
earshot of the surf on the island beach. There the manoeuvres, which
were clearly in the nature of a trial trip, ended. and we hove to, to
transship our passengers. They, when they came aboard, went straight
below, and Grimm, having steadied the tug on a settled course and
entrusted the wheel to the sailor again, stripped off his dripping
oilskin coat, threw it down on the cabin skylight, and followed them.
The course he had set was about west, with Norderney light a couple
of points off the port bow. The course for Memmert? Possibly; but I
cared not, for my mind was far from Memmert to-night. _It was the
course for England too._ Yes, I understood at last. I was assisting
at an experimental rehearsal of a great scene, to be enacted,
perhaps, in the near future--a scene when multitudes of seagoing
lighters, carrying full loads of soldiers, not half loads of coals,
should issue simultaneously, in seven ordered fleets, from seven
shallow outlets, and, under escort of the Imperial Navy, traverse the
North Sea and throw themselves bodily upon English shores.
Indulgent reader, you may be pleased to say that I have been very
obtuse; and yet, with humility, I protest against that verdict.
Remember that, recent as arc the events I am describing, it is only
since they happened that the possibility of an invasion of England by
Germany has become a topic of public discussion. Davies and I had
never--I was going to say had never considered it; but that would not
be accurate, for we had glanced at it once or twice; and if any
single incident in his or our joint cruise had provided a semblance
of confirmation, he, at any rate, would have kindled to that spark.
But you will see how perversely from first to last circumstances
drove us deeper and deeper into the wrong groove, till the idea
became inveterate that the secret we were seeking was one of defence
and not offence. Hence a complete mental somersault was required,
and, as an amateur, I found it difficult; the more so that the method
of invasion, as I darkly comprehended it now, was of such a strange
and unprecedented character; for orthodox invasions start from big
ports and involve a fleet of ocean transports, while none of our
clues pointed that way. To neglect obvious methods, to draw on the
obscure resources of an obscure strip of coast, to improve and
exploit a quantity of insignificant streams and tidal outlets, and
thence, screened by the islands, to despatch an armada of
light-draught barges, capable of flinging themselves on a
correspondingly obscure and therefore unexpected portion of the
enemy's coast; that was a conception so daring, aye, and so quixotic
in some of its aspects, that even now I was half incredulous. Yet it
must be the true one. Bit by bit the fragments of the puzzle fell
into order till a coherent whole was adumbrated. [The reader will
find the whole matter dealt with in the Epilogue.]
The tug surged on into the night; a squall of rain leapt upon us and
swept hissing astern. Baltrum vanished and the strands of Norderney
beamed under transient moonlight. Drunk with triumph, I cuddled in my
rocking cradle and ransacked every unvisited chamber of the memory,
tossing out their dusty contents, to make a joyous bonfire of some,
and to see the residue take life and meaning in the light of the
My reverie was of things, not persons; of vast national issues rather
than of the poignant human interests so closely linked with them. But
on a sudden I was recalled, with a shock, to myself, Davies, and the
We were changing our course, as I knew by variations in the whirl of
draughts which whistled about me. I heard Grimm afoot again, and,
choosing my moment, surveyed the scene. Broad on the port-beam were
the garish lights of Norderney town and promenade, and the tug, I
perceived, was drawing in to enter the See-Gat. _[See Chart B.]_
Round she came, hustling through the broken water of the bar, till
her nose was south and the wind was on the starboard bow. Not a mile
from me were the villa and the yacht, and the three persons of the
drama--three, that is, if Davies were safe.
Were we to land at Norderney harbour? Heavens, what a magnificent
climax!--if only I could rise to it. My work here was done. At a
stroke to rejoin Davies and be free to consummate our designs!
A desperate idea of cutting the davit-tackles--I blush to think of
the stupidity--was rejected as soon as it was born, and instead, I
endeavoured to imagine our approach to the pier. My boat hung on the
starboard side; that would be the side away from the quay, and the
tide would be low. I could swarm down the davits during the stir of
arrival, drop into the sea and swim the few yards across the
dredged-out channel, wade through the mud to within a short distance
of the Dulcibella, and swim the rest. I rubbed the salt out of my
eyes and wriggled my cramped legs ... Hullo! why was Grimm leaving
the helm again? Back he went to the cabin, leaving the sailor at the
helm. . . We ought to be turning to port now; but no--on we went,
south, for the mainland.
Though one plan was frustrated, the longing to get to Davies, once
implanted, waxed apace.
Our destination was at last beyond dispute. _[See Chart.]_ The
channel we were in was the same that we had cut across on our blind
voyage to Memmert, and the same my ferry-steamer had followed two
days ago. It was a _cul-de-sac_ leading to one place only, the
landing stage at Norddeich. The only place on the whole coast, now I
came to think of it, where the tug could land at this tide. There the
quay would be on the starboard side, and I saw myself tied to my
eyrie while the passengers landed and the tug and lighter turned back
for Memmert; at Memmert, dawn, and discovery.
There was some way out--some way out, I repeated to myself; some way
to reap the fruit of Davies's long tutelage in the lore of this
strange region. What would _he_ do?
For answer there came the familiar _frou-frou_ of gentle surf on
drying sands. The swell was dying away, the channel narrowing; dusky
and weird on the starboard hand stretched leagues of new-risen sand.
Two men only were on deck; the moon was quenched under the vanguard
clouds of a fresh squall.
A madcap scheme danced before me. The time, I _must_ know the time!
Crouching low and cloaking the flame with my jacket I struck a match;
2.30 a.m.--the tide had been ebbing for about three hours and a half.
Low water about five; they would be aground till 7.30. Danger to
life? None. Flares and rescuers? Not likely, with 'him who insists'
on board; besides, no one could come, there being no danger. I should
have a fair wind and a fair tide for _my_ trip. Grimm's coat was on
the skylight; we were both clean shaved.
The helmsman gazed ahead, intent on his difficult course, and the
wind howled to perfection. I knelt up and examined one of the
davit-tackles. There was nothing remarkable about it, a double and a
single block (like our own peak halyards), the lower one hooked into
a ring in the boat, the hauling part made fast to a cleat on the
davit itself. Something there must be to give lateral support or the
boat would have racketed abroad in the roll outside. The support, I
found, consisted of two lanyards spliced to the davits and rove
through holes in the keel. These I leaned over and cut with my
pocket-knife; the result being a barely perceptible swaying of the
boat, for the tug was under the lee of sands and on an even keel.
Then I left my hiding-place, climbing out of the stern sheets by the
after-davit, and preparing every successive motion with exquisite
tenderness, till I stood on the deck. In another moment I was at the
cabin skylight, lifting Grimm's long oilskin coat. (A second's
yielding to temptation here; but no, the skylight was ground glass,
fastened from below. So, on with the coat, up with the collar, and
forward to the wheel on tiptoe.) As soon as I was up to the
engine-room skylight (that is to say, well ahead of the cabin roof) I
assumed a natural step, went up to the pulpit and touched the
helmsman on the arm, as I had seen Grimm do. The man stepped aside,
grunting something about a light, and I took the wheel from him.
Grimm was a man of few words, so I just jogged his satellite, and
pointed forward. He went off like a lamb to his customary place in
the bows, not having dreamt--why should he?--of examining me, but in
him I had instantly recognized one of the crew of the Kormoran.
My ruse developed in all its delicious simplicity. We were, I
estimated, about half-way to Norddeich, in the Buse Tief, a channel
of a navigable breadth, at the utmost of two hundred yards at this
period of the tide. Two faint lights, one above the other, twinkled
far ahead. What they meant I neither knew nor cared, since the only
use I put them to was to test the effect of the wheel, for this was
the first time I had ever tasted the sweets of command on a
steamboat. A few cautious essays taught me the rudiments, and nothing
could hinder the catastrophe now.
I edged over to starboard--that was the side I had selected--and
again a little more, till the glistening back of the look-out gave a
slight movement; but he was a well-drilled minion, with implicit
trust in the 'old man'. Now, hard over! and spoke by spoke I gave her
the full pressure of the helm. The look-out shouted a warning, and I
raised my arm in calm acknowledgement. A cry came from the lighter,
and I remember I was just thinking 'What the dickens'll happen to
her?' when the end came; a _euthanasia_ so mild and gradual (for the
sands are fringed with mud) that the disaster was on us before I was
aware of it. There was just the tiniest premonitory shuddering as our
keel clove the buttery medium, a cascade of ripples from either beam,
and the wheel jammed to rigidity in my hands, as the tug nestled up
to her resting-place.
In the scene of panic that followed, it is safe to say that I was the
only soul on board who acted with methodical tranquillity. The
look-out flew astern like an arrow, bawling to the lighter. Grimm,
with the passengers tumbling up after him, was on deck in an instant,
storming and cursing; flung himself on the wheel which I had
respectfully abandoned, jangled the telegraph, and wrenched at the
spokes. The tug listed over under the force of the tide; wind,
darkness, and rain aggravated the confusion.
For my part, I stepped back behind the smoke stack, threw off my robe
of office, and made for the boat. Long and bitter experience of
running aground had told me that that was sure to be wanted. On the
way I cannoned into one of the passengers and pressed him into my
service; incidentally seeing his face, and verifying an old
conjecture. It was one who, in Germany. has a better right to insist
than anyone else.
As we reached the davits there was a report like a pistol-shot from
the port-side--the tow-rope parting, I believe, as the lighter with
her shallower draught swung on past the tug. Fresh tumult arose, in
which I heard: 'Lower the boat,' from Grimm; but the order was
already executed. My ally the Passenger and I had each cast off a
tackle, and slacked away with a run; that done, I promptly clutched
the wire guy to steady myself, and tumbled in. (It was not far to
tumble, for the tug listed heavily to starboard; think of our course,
and the set of the ebb stream, and you will see why.) The forward
fall unhooked sweetly; but the after one lost play. 'Slack away,' I
called, peremptorily, and felt for my knife. My helper above obeyed;
the hook yielded; I filliped away the loose tackle, and the boat
28 We Achieve our Double Aim
WHEN, exactly, the atmosphere of misunderstanding on the stranded tug
was dissipated, I do not know, for by the time I had fitted the
rowlocks and shipped sculls, tide and wind had caught me, and were
sweeping me merrily back on the road to Norderney, whose lights
twinkled through the scud in the north. With my first few strokes I
made towards the lighter--which I could see sagging helplessly to
leeward--but as soon as I thought I was out of sight of the tug, I
pulled round and worked out my own salvation. There was an outburst
of shouting which soon died away. Full speed. on a falling tide! They
were pinned there for five hours sure. It was impossible to miss the
way, and with my stout allies heaving me forward, I made short work
of the two-mile passage. There was a sharp tussle at the last, where
the Riff-Gat poured its stream across my path, and then I was craning
over my shoulder, God knows with what tense anxiety, for the low hull
and taper mast of the Dulcibella, Not there! No, not where I had left
her. I pulled furiously up the harbour past a sleeping ferry-steamer
and--praise Heaven!--came on her warped alongside the jetty.
'Who's that?' came from below, as I stepped on board.
'Hush! it's me.' And Davies and I were pawing one another in the dark
of the cabin.
'Are you all right, old chap?' said he.
'Yes; are you? A match! What's the time? Quick!'
'Good Heavens, Carruthers, what the blazes have you done to
yourself?' (I suspect I cut a pretty figure after my two days'
'Ten past three. It's the invasion of England! Is Dollmann at the
'Is Dollmann at the villa?'
'Is the Medusa afloat?'
'No, on the mud.'
'The devil! Are we afloat?'
'I think so still, but they made me shift.'
'Think! Track her out! Pole her out! Cut those warps!'
For a few strenuous minutes we toiled at the sweeps till the
Dulcibella was berthed ahead of the steamer, in deeper water.
Meanwhile I had whispered a few facts.
'How soon can you get under way?' I asked.
'Sunrise about seven, first dawn about five. Where are we bound?'
'Holland, or England.'
'Are they invading it now?' said Davies, calmly.
'No, only rehearsing!' I laughed, wildly.
'Then we can wait.'
'We can wait exactly an hour and a half. Come ashore and knock up
Dollmann; we must denounce him, and get them both aboard; it's now or
never. Holy Saints! man, not as you are!' (He was in pyjamas.) 'Sea
While he put on Christian attire, I resumed my facts and sketched a
plan. 'Are you watched?' I asked.
'I think so; by the Kormoran's men.'
'Is the Kormoran here?'
'Not to-night. Grimm called for them in that tug. I was watching.
And, Carruthers. the Blitz is here.'
'In the roads outside--didn't you see her?'
'Wasn't looking. Her skipper's safe anyway; so's Böhme, so's the
Tertium Quid, and so are the Kormoran's men. The coast's clear--it's
now or never.'
Once more we were traversing the long jetty and the silent streets,
rain driving at our backs. We trod on air, I think; I remember no
fatigue. Davies sometimes broke into a little run, muttering
'scoundrel' to himself.
'I was right--only upside down,' he murmured more than once. 'Always
really right--those channels are the key to the whole concern.
Chatham, our only eastern base--no North Sea base or squadron--they'd
land at one of those God-forsaken flats off the Crouch and
'It seems a wild scheme,' I observed.
'Wild? In a way. So is _any_ invasion. But it's thorough; it's
German. No other country could do it. It's all dawning on me--by
Jove! It will be at the _Wash_--much the nearest, and as sandy as
'How's Dollmann been?' I asked.
'Polite, but queer and jumpy. It's too long a story.'
'She's_ all right. By Jove! Carruthers--never mind.'
We found a night-bell at the villa door and rang it lustily. A window
aloft opened, and 'A message from Commander von Brüning--urgent,' I
The window shut, and soon after the hall was lighted and the door
opened by Dollmann in a dressing-gown.
'Good morning, Lieutenant X--,' I said, in English. 'Stop, we're
friends, you fool!' as the door was flung nearly to. It opened very
slowly again, and we walked in.
'Silence!' he hissed. The sweat stood on his steep forehead and a
hectic flush on either cheek, but there was a smile--what a
smile!--on his lips. Motioning us to tread noiselessly (a vain ideal
for me), he led the way to the sitting-room we knew, switched on the
light, and faced us.
'Well?' he said, in English, still smiling.
I consulted my watch, and I may say that if my hand was an index to
my general appearance, I must have looked the most abject ruffian
'We probably understand one another,' I said, 'and to explain is to
lose time. We sail for Holland, or perhaps England, at five at the
latest, and we want the pleasure of your company. We promise you
immunity--on certain conditions, which can wait. We have only two
berths, so that we can only accommodate Miss Clara besides yourself.'
He smiled on through this terse harangue, but the smile froze, as
though beneath it raged some crucial debate. Suddenly he laughed (a
low, ironical laugh).
'You fools,' he said, 'you confounded meddlesome young idiots; I
thought I had done with you. Promise me immunity? Give me till five?
By God, I'll give you five minutes to be off to England and be damned
to you, or else to be locked up for spies! What the devil do you take
'A traitor in German service,' said Davies, none too firmly, We were
both taken aback by this slashing attack.
'A tr--? You pig-headed young marplots! I'm in _British_ service!
You're wrecking the work of years--and on the very threshold of
For an instant Davies and I looked at one another in stupefaction. He
lied--I could swear he lied; but how make sure?
'Why did you try to wreck Davies?' said I, mechanically.
'Pshaw! They made me clear him out. I knew he was safe, and safe he
There was only one thing for it--a last finesse, to put him to the
'Very well,' I said, after a moment or two, 'we'll clear
out--silence, Davies!--as it appears we have acted in error; but it's
right to tell you that we know everything.'
'Not so loud, curse you! What do you know?'
'I was taking notes at Memmert the other night.'
'Thanks to Davies. Under difficulties, of course, but I heard quite
enough. You were reporting your English tour--Chatham, you know, and
the English scheme of attack, a mythical one, no doubt, as you're on
the right side! Böhme and the rest were dealing with the German
scheme of defence A to G--I heard it all--the seven islands and the
seven channels between them (Davies knows every one of them by
heart); and then on land, the ring of railway, Esens the centre, the
army corps to mobilize and entrench--all nugatory, wasted, ha!
ha!--as you're on the rights--'
'Not so loud, you fiend of mischief!' He turned his back, and made an
irresolute pace or two towards the door, his hands kneading the folds
of his dressing-gown as they had kneaded the curtain at Memmert.
Twice he began a question and twice broke off. 'I congratulate you,
gentlemen,' he said, finally, and with more composure, facing us
again, 'you have done marvels in your misplaced zeal; but you have
compromised me too much already. I shall have to have you
arrested--purely for form's sake--'
'Thank you,' I broke in. 'We have wasted five minutes, and time
presses. We sail at five, and--purely for form's sake--would rather
have you with us.'
'What do you mean?' he snarled.
'I had the advantage of _you_ at Memmert, in spite of acoustic
obstacles. Your friends made an appointment behind your back, and I,
in my misplaced zeal, have taken some trouble to attend it; so that
I've had a working demonstration on another matter, the invasion of
England from the seven _siels_.' (Davies nudged me.) 'No, I should
let that pistol alone; and no, I wouldn't ring the bell. You can
arrest us if you like, but the secret's in safe hands.'
'You lie!' He was right there; but he could not know it.
'Do you suppose I haven't taken that precaution? But no names are
mentioned.' He gave a sort of groan, sank into a chair, and seemed to
age and grizzle before our very eyes.
'What did you say about immunity, and Clara?' he muttered. 'We're
friends--we're friends!' burst out Davies, with a gulp in his voice.
'We want to help you both.' (Through a sudden mist that filmed my
eyes I saw him impetuously walk over and lay his hand on the other's
shoulder.) 'Those chaps are on our track and yours. Come with us.
Wake her, tell her. It'll be too late soon.'
X-- shrank from his touch. 'Tell her? I can't tell her. You tell her,
boy.' He was huddling back into his chair. Davies turned to me.
'Where's her room?' I said, sharply.
'Above this one.'
'Go up, Carruthers,' said Davies.
'Not I--I shall frighten her into a fit.'
'I don't like to.'
'Nonsense, man! We'll both go then.'
'Don't make a noise,' said a dazed voice. We left that huddled figure
and stole upstairs--thickly carpeted stairs, luckily. The door we
wanted was half open, and the room behind it lighted. On the
threshold stood a slim white figure, bare-footed; barethroated.
'What is it, father?' she called in a whisper. 'Whom have you been
talking to?' I pushed Davies forward, but he hung back.
'Hush, don't be frightened,' I said, 'it's I, Carruthers, and
Davies--and Davies. May we come in, just for one moment?'
I gently widened the opening of the door, while she stepped back and
put one hand to her throat.
'Please come to your father,' I said. 'We are going to take you both
to England in the Dulcibella--now, at once.'
She had heard me, but her eyes wandered to Davies.
'I understand not,' she faltered, trembling and cowering in such
touching bewilderment that I could not bear to look at her.
'For God's sake, say something, Davies,' I muttered.
'Clara!' said Davies, 'will you not trust us?'
I heard a little gasp from her. There was a flutter of lace and
cambric and she was in his arms, sobbing like a tired child, her
little white feet between his great clumsy sea-boots--her rose-brown
cheek on his rough jersey.
'It's past four, old chap,' I remarked, brutally. 'I'm going down to
him again. No packing to speak of, mind. They must be out of this in
half an hour.' I stumbled awkwardly on the stairs (again that
tiresome film!) and found him stuffing some papers pell-mell into the
stove. There were only slumbering embers in it, but he did not seem
to notice that. 'You must be dressed in half an hour,' I said,
furtively pocketing a pistol which lay on the table.
'Have you told her? Take her to England, you two boys. I think I'll
stay.' He sank into a chair again.
'Nonsense, she won't go without you. You must, for her sake--in half
an hour, too.'
I prefer to pass that half-hour lightly over. Davies left before me
to prepare the yacht for sea, and I had to bear the brunt of what
followed, including (as a mere episode) a scene with the step-mother,
the memory of which rankles in me yet. After all, she was a sensible
As for the other two, the girl when I saw her next, in her short
boating skirt and tam-o'-shanter, was a miracle of coolness and
pluck. But for her 1 should never have got him away. And ah! how good
it was to be out in the wholesome rain again, hurrying to the harbour
with my two charges, hurrying them down the greasy ladder to that
frail atom of English soil, their first guerdon of home and safety.
Our flight from the harbour was unmolested, unnoticed. Only the first
ghastly evidences of dawn were mingling with the strangled moonlight,
as we tacked round the pier-head and headed close-reefed down the
Riff-Gat on the lees of the ebb-tide. We had to pass under the very
quarter of the Blitz, so Davies said; for, of course, he alone was on
deck till we reached the open sea. Day was breaking then. It was dead
low water, and, far away to the south, between dun swathes of sand, I
thought I saw--but probably it was only a fancy--two black stranded
specks. Rail awash, and decks streaming, we took the outer swell and
clawed close-hauled under the lee of Juist, westward, hurrying
'Up the Ems on the flood, and to Dutch Delfzyl,' I urged. No, thought
Davies; it was too near Germany, and there was a tidal cut through
from Buse Tief. Better to dodge in behind Rottum Island. So on we
pressed, past Memmert, over the Juister Reef and the Corinne's buried
millions, across the two broad and yeasty mouths of the Ems, till
Rottum, a wee lonesome wafer of an islet, the first of the Dutch
archipelago, was close on the weather-bow.
'We must get in behind that,' said Davies, 'then we shall be safe; I
think I know the way, but get the next chart; and then take a rest,
old chap. Clara and I can manage.' (She had been on deck most of the
time, as capable a hand as you could wish for, better far than I in
my present state of exhaustion.) I crawled along the slippery sloping
planks and went below.
'Where are we?' cried Dollmann, starting up from the lee sofa, where
he seemed to have been lying in a sort of trance. A book, his own
book, slipped from his knees, and I saw the frontispiece lying on the
floor in a pool of oil; for the stove had gone adrift, and the saloon
was in a wretched state of squalor and litter.
'Off Rottum,' I said, and knelt up to find the chart. There was a
look in his eyes that I suppose I ought to have understood, but I can
scarcely blame myself, for the accumulated strain, not only of the
last three days and nights, but of the whole arduous month of my
cruise with Davies, was beginning to tell on me, now that safety and
success were at hand. I handed up the chart through the companion,
and then crept into the reeling fo'c'sle and lay down on the spare
sail-bags, with the thunder and thump of the seas around and above
I must quote Davies for the event that happened now; for by the time
I had responded to the alarm and climbed up through the fore-hatch,
the whole tragedy was over and done with.
'X-- came up the companion,' he says, 'soon after you went down. He
held on by the runner, and stared to windward at Rottum, as though he
knew the place quite well. And then he came towards us, moving so
unsteadily that I gave Clara the tiller, and went to help him. I
tried to make him go down again, but he wouldn't, and came aft.
"'Give me the helm," he said, half to himself. "Sea's too bad
outside--there's a short cut here."
"'Thanks," I said, "I know this one." (I don't think I meant to be
sarcastic.) He said nothing, and settled himself on the counter
behind us, safe enough, with his feet against the lee-rail, and then,
to my astonishment, began to talk over my shoulder jolly sensibly
about the course, pointing out a buoy which is wrong on the chart (as
I knew), and telling me it was wrong, and so on. Well, we came to the
bar of the Schild, and had to turn south for that twisty bit of
beating between Rottum and Bosch Flat. Clara was at the jib-sheet, I
had the chart and the tiller (you know how absent I get like that);
there was a bobble of sea, and we both had heaps to do, and--well--I
happened to look round, and he was gone. He hadn't spoken for a
minute or two, but I believe the last thing I heard him say (I was
hardly attending at the time, for we were in the thick of it) was
something about a "short cut" again. He must have slipped over
quietly ... He had an ulster and big boots on.'
We cruised about for a time, but never found him.
That evening, after threading the maze of shoals between the Dutch
mainland and islands, we anchored off the little hamlet of Ostmahorn,
_[See Map A]_ gave the yacht in charge of some astonished fishermen,
and thence by road and rail, hurrying still, gained Harlingen, and
took passage on a steamer to London. From that point our personal
history is of no concern to the outside world, and here, therefore, I
bring this narrative to an end.
BY THE EDITOR
[For this chapter see Map A.]
AN interesting document, somewhat damaged by fire, lies on my study
It is a copy (in cipher) of a confidential memorandum to the German
Government embodying a scheme for the invasion of England by Germany.
It is unsigned, but internal evidence, and the fact that it was taken
by Mr 'Carruthers' from the stove of the villa at Norderney, leave no
doubt as to its authorship. For many reasons it is out of the
question to print the textual translation of it, as deciphered; but I
propose to give an outline of its contents.
Even this must strain discretion to its uttermost limits, and had I
only to consider the instructed few who follow the trend of
professional opinion on such subjects, I should leave the foregoing
narrative to speak for itself. But, as was stated in the preface, our
primary purpose is to reach everyone; and there may be many who, in
spite of able and authoritative warnings frequently uttered since
these events occurred, are still prone to treat the German danger as
an idle 'bogey', and may be disposed, in this case, to imagine that a
baseless romance has been foisted on them.
A few persons (English as well as German) hold that Germany is strong
enough now to meet us single-handed, and throw an army on our shores.
The memorandum rejects this view, deferring isolated action for at
least a decade; and supposing, for present purposes, a coalition of
three Powers against Great Britain. And subsequent researches through
the usual channels place it beyond dispute that this condition was
relied on by the German Government in adopting the scheme. They
realized that even if, owing to our widely scattered forces, they
gained that temporary command of the North Sea which would be
essential for a successful landing, they would inevitably lose it
when our standing fleets were concentrated and our reserve ships
mobilized. With its sea-communications cut, the prospects of the
invading army would be too dubious. I state it in that mild way, for
it seems not to have been held that failure was absolutely certain;
and rightly, I think, in spite of the dogmas of the strategists--for
the ease transcends all experience. No man can calculate the effect
on our delicate economic fabric of a well-timed, well-planned blow at
the industrial heart of the kingdom, the great northern and midland
towns, with their teeming populations of peaceful wage-earners. In
this instance, however, joint action (the occasion for which is
perhaps not difficult to guess) was distinctly contemplated, and
Germany's _rôle_ in the coalition was exclusively that of invader.
Her fleet was to be kept intact, and she herself to remain ostensibly
neutral until the first shock was over, and our own battle-fleets
either beaten, or, the much more likely event, so crippled by a
hard-won victory as to be incapable of withstanding compact and
unscathed forces. Then, holding the balance of power, she would
strike. And the blow? It was not till I read this memorandum that I
grasped the full merits of that daring scheme, under which every
advantage, moral, material, and geographical, possessed by Germany,
is utilized to the utmost, and every disadvantage of our own turned
to account against us.
Two root principles pervade it: perfect organization; perfect
secrecy. Under the first head come some general considerations. The
writer (who is intimately conversant with conditions on both sides of
the North Sea) argued that Germany is pre-eminently fitted to
undertake an invasion of Great Britain. She has a great army (a mere
fraction of which would suffice) in a state of high efficiency, but a
useless weapon, as against us, unless transported over seas. She has
a peculiar genius for organization, not only in elaborating minute
detail, but in the grasp of a coherent whole. She knows the art of
giving a brain to a machine, of transmitting power to the uttermost
cog-wheel, and at the same time of concentrating responsibility in a
supreme centre. She has a small navy, but very effective for its
purpose, built, trained, and manned on methodical principles, for
defined ends, and backed by an inexhaustible reserve of men from her
maritime conscription. She studies and practises co-operation between
her army and navy. Her hands are free for offence in home waters,
since she has no distant network of coveted colonies and dependencies
on which to dissipate her defensive energies. Finally, she is,
compared with ourselves, economically independent, having commercial
access through her land frontiers to the whole of Europe. She has
little to lose and much to gain.
The writer pauses here to contrast our own situation, and I summarize
his points. We have a small army, dispersed over the whole globe, and
administered on a gravely defective system. We have no settled theory
of national defence, and no competent authority whose business it is
to give us one. The matter is still at the stage of civilian
controversy. Co-operation between the army and navy is not studied
and practised; much less do there exist any plans, worthy of the
name, for the repulse of an invasion, or any readiness worth
considering for the prompt equipment and direction of our home forces
to meet a sudden emergency. We have a great and, in many respects, a
magnificent navy, but not great enough for the interests it insures,
and with equally defective institutions; not built or manned
methodically, having an utterly inadequate reserve of men, all
classes of which would be absorbed at the very outset, without a
vestige of preparation for the enrolment of volunteers; distracted by
the multiplicity of its functions in guarding our colossal empire and
commerce, and conspicuously lacking a brain, not merely for the
smooth control of its own unwieldy mechanism, but for the study of
rival aims and systems. We have no North Sea naval base, no North Sea
Fleet, and no North Sea policy. Lastly, we stand in a highly
dangerous economical position.
The writer then deals with the method of invasion, and rejects the
obvious one at once, that of sending forth a fleet of transports from
one or more of the North Sea ports. He combats especially the idea of
making Emden (the nearest to our shores) the port of departure. I
mention this because, since his own scheme was adopted, it is
instructive to note that Emden had been used (with caution) as a red
herring by the inspired German press, when the subject was mentioned
at all, and industriously dragged across the trail. His objections to
the North Sea ports apply, he remarks, in reality to all schemes of
invasion, whether the conditions be favourable or not. One is that
secrecy is rendered impossible--and secrecy is vital. The collection
of the transports would be known in England weeks before the hour was
ripe for striking; for all large ports are cosmopolitan and swarm
with potential spies. In Germany's case, moreover, suitable ships are
none too plentiful, and the number required would entail a large
deduction from her mercantile marine. The other reason concerns the
actual landing. This must take place on an open part of the east
coast of England. No other objective is even considered. Now the
difficulty of transshipping and landing troops by boats from
transports anchored in deep water, in a safe, swift, and orderly
fashion, on an open beach, is enormous. The most hastily improvised
resistance might cause a humiliating disaster. Yet the first stage is
the most important of all. It is imperative that the invaders should
seize and promptly intrench a pre-arranged line of country, to serve
as an initial base. This once done, they can use other resources;
they can bring up transports, land cavalry and heavy guns, pour in
stores, and advance. But unless this is done, they are impotent, be
their sea-communications never so secure.
The only logical alternative is then propounded: to despatch an army
of infantry with the lightest type of field-guns in big sea-going
lighters, towed by powerful but shallow-draught tugs, under escort of
a powerful composite squadron of warships; and to fling the flotilla,
at high tide, if possible, straight upon the shore.
Such an expedition could be prepared in absolute secrecy, by turning
to account the natural features of the German coast. No great port
was to be concerned in any way. All that was required was sufficient
depth of water to float the lighters and tugs; and this is supplied
by seven insignificant streams, issuing from the Frisian littoral,
and already furnished with small harbours and sluice-gates, with one
exception, namely, the tidal creek at Norden; for this, it appeared,
was one of the chosen seven, and not, as 'Carruthers' supposed,
Hilgenriedersiel, which, if you remember, he had no time to visit,
and which has, in fact, no stream of any value at all, and no
harbour. All of these streams would have to be improved, deepened,
and generally canalized; ostensibly with a commercial end, for
purposes of traffic with the islands, which are growing health
resorts during a limited summer season.
The whole expedition would be organized under seven distinct
sub-divisions--not too great a number in view of its cumbrous
character. Seawards, the whole of the coast is veiled by the fringe
of islands and the zone of shoals. Landwards, the loop of railway
round the Frisian peninsula would form the line of communication in
rear of the seven streams. Esens was to be the local centre of
administration when the scheme grew to maturity, but not till then.
Every detail for the movement of troops under the seven different
heads was to be arranged for with secrecy and exactitude many months
in advance, and from headquarters at Berlin. It was not expected that
nothing would leak out, but care was to be taken that anything that
did do so should be attributed to defensive measures--a standing
feature in German mobilization being the establishment of a corps of
observation along the Frisian coast; in fact, the same machinery was
to be used, and its conversion for offence concealed up to the latest
possible moment. The same precautions were to be taken in the
preliminary work on the spot. There, four men only (it was
calculated) need be in full possession of the secret. One was to
represent the Imperial Navy (a post filled by our friend von
Brüning). Another (Böhme) was to superintend the six canals and the
construction of the lighters. The functions of the third were
twofold. He was to organize what I may call the local labour--that
is, the helpers required for embarkation, the crews of the tugs, and,
most important of all, the service of pilots for the navigation of
the seven flotillas through the corresponding channels to the open
sea. He must be a local man, thoroughly acquainted with the coast, of
a social standing not much above the average of villagers and
fishermen, and he must be ready when the time was ripe with lists of
the right men for the right duties, lists to which the conscription
authorities could when required, give instant legal effect. His other
function was to police the coast for spies, and to report anything
suspicious to von Brüning, who would never be far away. On the whole
I think that they found the grim Grimm a jewel for their purpose.
As fourth personage, the writer designates himself, the promoter of
the scheme, the indispensable link between the two nations. He
undertakes to furnish reliable information as to the disposition of
troops in England, as to the hydrography of the coast selected for
the landing, as to the supplies available in its vicinity, and the
strategic points to be seized. He proposes to be guide-in-chief to
the expedition during transit. And in the meantime (when not
otherwise employed) he was to reside at Norderney, in close touch
with the other three, and controlling the commercial undertakings
which were to throw dust in the eyes of the curious. [Memmert, by the
way, is not mentioned in this memorandum.]
He speaks of the place 'selected for the landing', and proceeds to
consider this question in detail. I cannot follow him in his review,
deeply interesting though it is, and shall say at once that he
reduces possible landing-places to two, the flats on the Essex coast
between Foulness and Brightlingsea, and the Wash--with a decided
preference for the latter. Assuming that the enemy, if they got wind
of an invasion at all, would expect transports to be employed, he
chooses the sort of spot which they would be least likely to defend,
and which, nevertheless, was suitable to the character of the
flotillas, and similar to the region they started from. There is such
a spot on the Lincolnshire coast, on the north side of the Wash,
_[See Map A]_ known as East Holland. It is low-lying land, dyked
against the sea, and bordered like Frisia with sand-flats which dry
off at low water. It is easy of access from the east, by way of
Boston Deeps, a deep-water channel formed by a detached bank, called
the Long Sand, lying parallel to the shore for ten miles. This bank
makes a natural breakwater against the swell from the east (the only
quarter to be feared); and the Deeps behind it, where there is an
average depth of thirty-four feet at low-water, would form an
excellent roadstead for the covering squadron, whose guns would
command the shore within easy range. It is noted in passing that this
is just the case where German first-class battleships would have an
advantage over British ships of the same calibre. The latter are of
just too heavy a draught to navigate such waters without peril, if,
indeed, they could enter this roadstead at all, for there is a bar at
the mouth of it with only thirty-one feet at high water, spring
tides. The former, built as they were with a view to manoeuvring in
the North Sea, are just within the margin of safety. East Holland is
within easy striking distance of the manufacturing districts, a
vigorous raid on which is, the writer urges, the true policy of an
invader. He reports positively that there exist (in a proper military
sense) no preparations whatever to meet such an attack. East Holland
is also the nearest point on the British shores to Germany, excepting
the coast of Norfolk; much nearer, indeed, than the Essex flats
alluded to, and reached by a simple deep-sea passage, without any
dangerous region to navigate, like the mouth of the Channel and the
estuary of the Thames from Harwich westwards. The distance is 240
sea-miles, west by south roughly, from Borkum Island, and 280 from
Wangeroog. The time estimated for transit after the flotillas had
been assembled outside the islands is from thirty to thirty-four
Embarkation is the next topic. This could and must be effected in one
tide. At the six _siels_ there was a mean period of two and a half
hours in every twelve, during which the water was high enough. At
Norden a rather longer time was available. But this should be amply
sufficient if the machinery were in good working order and were
punctually set in motion. High water occurs approximately at the same
time at all seven outlets, the difference between the two farthest
apart, Carolinensiel and Greetsiel, being only half an hour.
Lastly, the special risks attendant on such an expedition are
dispassionately weighed. X--, though keenly anxious to recommend his
scheme, writes in no blindly sanguine spirit. There are no modern
precedents for any invasion in the least degree comparable to that of
England by Germany. Any such attempt will be a hazardous experiment.
But he argues that the advantages of his method outweigh the risks,
and that most of the risks themselves would attach equally to any
other method. Whatever skill in prediction was used, bad weather
might overtake the expedition. Yes; but if transports were used
transhipment into boats for landing would in bad weather be fraught
with the same and a greater peril. But transports could stand off and
wait. Delay is fatal in any case; unswerving promptitude is the
essence of such an enterprise. The lighters would be in danger of
foundering? Beside the point; if the end is worth gaining the risks
must be faced. Soldiers' lives are sacrificed in tens of thousands on
battlefields. The flotilla would be demoralized during transit by the
assault of a few torpedo-boats? Granted; but the same would apply to
a fleet of transports, with the added certainty that one lucky shot
would send to the bottom ten times the number of soldiers, with less
hope of rescue. In both cases reliance must be placed on the
efficiency and vigilance of the escort. It is admitted, however, in a
passage which might well make my two adventurers glow with triumph,
that if by any mischance the British discovered what was afoot in
good time, and were able to send over a swarm of light-draught boats,
which could elude the German warships and get amongst the flotillas
while they were still in process of leaving the siels; it is admitted
that in that case the expedition was doomed. But it is held that such
an event was not to be feared. Reckless pluck is abundant in the
British Navy, but expert knowledge of the tides and shoals in these
waters is utterly lacking. The British charts are of no value, and
there is no evidence (he reports) that the subject has been studied
in any way by the British Admiralty. Let me remark here, that I
believe Mr 'Davies's' views, as expressed in the earlier chapters,
when they were still among the great estuaries, are all absolutely
sound. The 'channel theory', though it only bore indirectly on the
grand issue before them, was true, and should be laid to heart, or I
should not have wasted space on it.
One word more, in conclusion. There is an axiom, much in fashion now,
that there is no fear of an invasion of the British Isles, because if
we lose command of the sea, we can be starved--a cheaper and surer
way of reducing us to submission. It is a loose, valueless axiom, but
by sheer repetition it is becoming an article of faith. It implies
that 'command of the sea' is a thing to be won or lost definitely;
that we may have it to-day and lose it for ever to-morrow. On the
contrary, the chances are that in anything like an even struggle the
command of the sea will hang in the balance for an indefinite time.
And even against great odds, it would probably be impossible for our
enemies so to bar the avenues of our commerce, so to blockade the
ports of our extensive coast-line, and so to overcome the interest
which neutrals will have in supplying us, as to bring us to our knees
in less than two years, during which time we can be recuperating and
rebuilding from our unique internal resources, and endeavouring to
No; the better axiom is that nothing short of a successful invasion
could finally compel us to make peace. Our hearts are stout, we hope;
but facts are facts; and a successful raid, such as that here
sketched, if you will think out its consequences, must appal the
stoutest heart. It was checkmated, but others may be conceived. In
any case, we know the way in which they look at these things in
Postscript (March 1903)
IT so happens that while this book was in the press a number of
measures have been taken by the Government to counteract some of the
very weaknesses and dangers which are alluded to above. A Committee
of National Defence has been set up, and the welcome given to it was
a truly extraordinary comment on the apathy and confusion which it is
designed to supplant. A site on the Forth has been selected for a new
North Sea naval base--an excellent if tardy decision; for ten years
or so must elapse before the existing anchorage becomes in any sense
a 'base'. A North Sea fleet has also been created--another good
measure; but it should be remembered that its ships are not modern,
or in the least capable of meeting the principal Gem-man squadrons
under the circumstances supposed above.
Lastly, a Manning Committee has (among other matters) reported
vaguely in favour of a Volunteer Reserve. There is no means of
knowing what this recommendation will lead to; let us hope not to the
fiasco of the last badly conceived experiment. Is it not becoming
patent that the time has come for training all Englishmen
systematically either for the sea or for the rifle?