From Flushing eastward to Hamburg, then northward to Flensburg, I cut short the next day’s sultry story. Past dyke and windmill and still canals, on to blazing stubbles and roaring towns; at the last, after dusk, through a quiet level region where the train pottered from one lazy little station to another, and at ten o’clock I found myself, stiff and stuffy, on the platform at Flensburg, exchanging greetings with Davies.
‘It’s awfully good of you to come.’
‘Not at all; it’s very good of you to ask me.’
We were both of us ill at ease. Even in the dim gaslight he clashed on my notions of a yachtsman–no cool white ducks or neat blue serge; and where was the snowy crowned yachting cap, that precious charm that so easily converts a landsman into a dashing mariner? Conscious that this impressive uniform, in high perfection, was lying ready in my portmanteau, I felt oddly guilty. He wore an old Norfolk jacket, muddy brown shoes, grey flannel trousers (or had they been white?), and an ordinary tweed cap. The hand he gave me was horny, and appeared to be stained with paint; the other one, which carried a parcel, had a bandage on it which would have borne renewal. There was an instant of mutual inspection. I thought he gave me a shy, hurried scrutiny as though to test past conjectures, with something of anxiety in it, and perhaps (save the mark!) a tinge of admiration. The face was familiar, and yet not familiar; the pleasant blue eyes, open, clean-cut features, unintellectual forehead were the same; so were the brisk and impulsive movements; there was some change; but the moment of awkward hesitation was over and the light was bad; and, while strolling down the platform for my luggage, we chatted with constraint about trivial things.
‘By the way,’ he suddenly said, laughing, ‘I’m afraid I’m not fit to be seen; but it’s so late it doesn’t matter. I’ve been painting hard all day, and just got it finished. I only hope we shall have some wind to-morrow–it’s been hopelessly calm lately. I say, you’ve brought a good deal of stuff,’ he concluded, as my belongings began to collect.
Here was a reward for my submissive exertions in the far east!
‘You gave me a good many commissions!’
‘Oh, I didn’t mean those things,’ he said, absently. ‘Thanks for bringing them, by the way. That’s the stove, I suppose; cartridges, this one, by the weight. You got the rigging-screws all right, I hope? They’re not really necessary, of course’ (I nodded vacantly, and felt a little hurt); ‘but they’re simpler than lanyards, and you can’t get them here. It’s that portmanteau,’ he said, slowly, measuring it with a doubtful eye. ‘Never mind! we’ll try. You couldn’t do with the Gladstone only, I suppose? You see, the dinghy–h’m, and there’s the hatchway, too’–he was lost in thought. ‘Anyhow, we’ll try. I’m afraid there are no cabs; but it’s quite near, and the porter’ll help.’
Sickening forebodings crept over me, while Davies shouldered my Gladstone and clutched at the parcels.
‘Aren’t your men here?’ I asked, faintly.
‘Men?’ He looked confused. ‘Oh, perhaps I ought to have told you, I never have any paid hands; it’s quite a small boat, you know–I hope you didn’t expect luxury. I’ve managed her single-handed for some time. A man would be no use, and a horrible nuisance.’ He revealed these appalling truths with a cheerful assurance, which did nothing to hide a naive apprehension of their effect on me. There was a check in our mobilization.
‘It’s rather late to go on board, isn’t it?’ I said, in a wooden voice. Someone was turning out the gaslights, and the porter yawned ostentatiously. ‘I think I’d rather sleep at an hotel to-night.’ A strained pause.
‘Oh, of course you can do that, if you like,’ said Davies, in transparent distress of mind. ‘But it seems hardly worth while to cart this stuff all the way to an hotel (I believe they’re all on the other side of the harbour), and back again to the boat to-morrow. She’s quite comfortable, and you’re sure to sleep well, as you’re tired.’
‘We can leave the things here,’ I argued feebly, ‘and walk over with my bag.’
‘Oh, I shall have to go aboard anyhow,’ he rejoined; ‘I never sleep on shore.’
He seemed to be clinging timidly, but desperately, to some diplomatic end. A stony despair was invading me and paralysing resistance. Better face the worst and be done with it.
‘Come on,’ I said, grimly.
Heavily loaded, we stumbled over railway lines and rubble heaps, and came on the harbour. Davies led the way to a stairway, whose weedy steps disappeared below in gloom.
‘If you’ll get into the dinghy,’ he said, all briskness now, ‘I’ll pass the things down.
I descended gingerly, holding as a guide a sodden painter which ended in a small boat, and conscious that I was collecting slime on cuffs and trousers.
‘Hold up!’ shouted Davies, cheerfully, as I sat down suddenly near the bottom, with one foot in the water.
I climbed wretchedly into the dinghy and awaited events.
‘Now float her up close under the quay wall, and make fast to the ring down there,’ came down from above, followed by the slack of the sodden painter, which knocked my cap off as it fell. ‘All fast? Any knot’ll do,’ I heard, as I grappled with this loathsome task, and then a big, dark object loomed overhead and was lowered into the dinghy. It was my portmanteau, and, placed athwart, exactly filled all the space amidships. ‘Does it fit?’ was the anxious inquiry from aloft.
Scratching at the greasy wall to keep the dinghy close to it, I received in succession our stores, and stowed the cargo as best I could, while the dinghy sank lower and lower in the water, and its precarious superstructure grew higher.
‘Catch!’ was the final direction from above, and a damp soft parcel hit me in the chest. ‘Be careful of that, it’s meat. Now back to the stairs!’
I painfully acquiesced, and Davies appeared.
‘It’s a bit of a load, and she’s rather deep; but I _think_ we shall manage,’ he reflected. ‘You sit right aft, and I’ll row.’
I was too far gone for curiosity as to how this monstrous pyramid was to be rowed, or even for surmises as to its foundering by the way. I crawled to my appointed seat, and Davies extricated the buried sculls by a series of tugs, which shook the whole structure, and made us roll alarmingly. How he stowed himself into rowing posture I have not the least idea, but eventually we were moving sluggishly out into the open water, his head just visible in the bows. We had started from what appeared to be the head of a narrow loch, and were leaving behind us the lights of a big town. A long frontage of lamp-lit quays was on our left, with here and there the vague hull of a steamer alongside. We passed the last of the lights and came out into a broader stretch of water, when a light breeze was blowing and dark hills could be seen on either shore.
‘I’m lying a little way down the fiord, you see,’ said Davies. ‘I hate to be too near a town, and I found a carpenter handy here–There she is! I wonder how you’ll like her!’
I roused myself. We were entering a little cove encircled by trees, and approaching a light which flickered in the rigging of a small vessel, whose outline gradually defined itself.
‘Keep her off,’ said Davies, as we drew alongside.
In a moment he had jumped on deck, tied the painter, and was round at my end.
‘You hand them up,’ he ordered, ‘and I’ll take them.’
It was a laborious task, with the one relief that it was not far to hand them – a doubtful compensation, for other reasons distantly shaping themselves. When the stack was transferred to the deck I followed it, tripping over the flabby meat parcel, which was already showing ghastly signs of disintegration under the dew. Hazily there floated through my mind my last embarkation on a yacht; my faultless attire, the trim gig and obsequious sailors, the accommodation ladder flashing with varnish and brass in the August sun; the orderly, snowy decks and basket chairs under the awning aft. What a contrast with this sordid midnight scramble, over damp meat and littered packing-cases! The bitterest touch of all was a growing sense of inferiority and ignorance which I had never before been allowed to feel in my experience of yachts.
Davies awoke from another reverie over my portmanteau to say, cheerily: ‘I’ll just show you round down below first, and then we’ll stow things away and get to bed.’
He dived down a companion ladder, and I followed cautiously. A complex odour of paraffin, past cookery, tobacco, and tar saluted my nostrils.
‘Mind your head,’ said Davies, striking a match and lighting a candle, while I groped into the cabin. ‘You’d better sit down; it’s easier to look round.’
There might well have been sarcasm in this piece of advice, for I must have cut a ridiculous figure, peering awkwardly and suspiciously round, with shoulders and head bent to avoid the ceiling, which seemed in the half-light to be even nearer the floor than it was.
‘You see,’ were Davies’s reassuring words, ‘there’s plenty of room to _sit_ upright’ (which was strictly true; but I am not very tall, and he is short). ‘Some people make a point of head-room, but I never mind much about it. That’s the centre-board case,’ he explained, as, in stretching my legs out, my knee came into contact with a sharp edge.
I had not seen this devilish obstruction, as it was hidden beneath the table, which indeed rested on it at one end. It appeared to be a long, low triangle, running lengthways with the boat and dividing the naturally limited space into two.
‘You see, she’s a flat-bottomed boat, drawing very little water without the plate; that’s why there’s so little headroom. For deep water you lower the plate; so, in one way or another, you can go practically anywhere.’
I was not nautical enough to draw any very definite conclusions from this, but what I did draw were not promising. The latter sentences were spoken from the forecastle, whither Davies had crept through a low sliding door, like that of a rabbit-hutch, and was already busy with a kettle over a stove which I made out to be a battered and disreputable twin brother of the No. 3 Rippingille.
‘It’ll be boiling soon,’ he remarked, ‘and we’ll have some grog.’
My eyes were used to the light now, and I took in the rest of my surroundings, which may be very simply described. Two long cushion-covered seats flanked the cabin, bounded at the after end by cupboards, one of which was cut low to form a sort of miniature sideboard, with glasses hung in a rack above it. The deck overhead was very low at each side but rose shoulder high for a space in the middle, where a ‘coach-house roof’ with a skylight gave additional cabin space. Just outside the door was a fold-up washing-stand. On either wall were long net-racks holding a medley of flags, charts, caps, cigar-boxes, banks of yam, and such like. Across the forward bulkhead was a bookshelf crammed to overflowing with volumes of all sizes, many upside down and some coverless. Below this were a pipe-rack, an aneroid, and a clock with a hearty tick. All the woodwork was painted white, and to a less jaundiced eye than mine the interior might have had an enticing look of snugness. Some Kodak prints were nailed roughly on the after bulkhead, and just over the doorway was the photograph of a young girl.
‘That’s my sister,’ said Davies, who had emerged and saw me looking at it. ‘Now, let’s get the stuff down.’ He ran up the ladder, and soon my portmanteau blackened the hatchway, and a great straining and squeezing began. ‘I was afraid it was too big,’ came down; ‘I’m sorry, but you’ll have to unpack on deck–we may be able to squash it down when it’s empty.’
Then the wearisome tail of packages began to form a fresh stack in the cramped space at my feet, and my back ached with stooping and moiling in unfamiliar places. Davies came down, and with unconcealed pride introduced me to the sleeping cabin (he called the other one ‘the saloon’). Another candle was lit and showed two short and narrow berths with blankets, but no sign of sheets; beneath these were drawers, one set of which Davies made me master of, evidently thinking them a princely allowance of space for my wardrobe.
‘You can chuck your things down the skylight on to your berth as you unpack them,’ he remarked. ‘By the way, I doubt if there’s room for all you’ve got. I suppose you couldn’t manage–‘
‘No, I couldn’t,’ I said shortly.
The absurdity of argument struck me; two men, doubled up like monkeys, cannot argue.
‘If you’ll go out I shall be able to get out too,’ I added. He seemed miserable at this ghost of an altercation, but I pushed past, mounted the ladder, and in the expiring moonlight unstrapped that accursed portmanteau and, brimming over with irritation, groped among its contents, sorting some into the skylight with the same feeling that nothing mattered much now, and it was best to be done with it; repacking the rest with guilty stealth ere Davies should discover their character, and strapping up the whole again. Then I sat down upon my white elephant and shivered, for the chill of autumn was in the air. It suddenly struck me that if it had been raining things might have been worse still. The notion made me look round. The little cove was still as glass; stars above and stars below; a few white cottages glimmering at one point on the shore; in the west the lights of Flensburg; to the east the fiord broadening into unknown gloom. From Davies toiling below there were muffled sounds of wrenching, pushing, and hammering, punctuated occasionally by a heavy splash as something shot up from the hatchway and fell into the water.
How it came about I do not know. Whether it was something pathetic in the look I had last seen on his face–a look which I associated for no reason whatever with his bandaged hand; whether it was one of those instants of clear vision in which our separate selves are seen divided, the baser from the better, and I saw my silly egotism in contrast with a simple generous nature; whether it was an impalpable air of mystery which pervaded the whole enterprise and refused to be dissipated by its most mortifying and vulgarizing incidents–a mystery dimly connected with my companion’s obvious consciousness of having misled me into joining him; whether it was only the stars and the cool air rousing atrophied instincts of youth and spirits; probably, indeed, it was all these influences, cemented into strength by a ruthless sense of humour which whispered that I was in danger of making a mere commonplace fool of myself in spite of all my laboured calculations; but whatever it was, in a flash my mood changed. The crown of martyrdom disappeared, the wounded vanity healed; that precious fund of fictitious resignation drained away, but left no void. There was left a fashionable and dishevelled young man sitting in the dew and in the dark on a ridiculous portmanteau which dwarfed the yacht that was to carry it; a youth acutely sensible of ignorance in a strange and strenuous atmosphere; still feeling sore and victimized; but withal sanely ashamed and sanely resolved to enjoy himself. I anticipate; for though the change was radical its full growth was slow. But in any case it was here and now that it took its birth.
‘Grog’s ready!’ came from below. Bunching myself for the descent I found to my astonishment that all trace of litter had miraculously vanished, and a cosy neatness reigned. Glasses and lemons were on the table, and a fragrant smell of punch had deadened previous odours. I showed little emotion at these amenities, but enough to give intense relief to Davies, who delightedly showed me his devices for storage, praising the ‘roominess’ of his floating den. ‘There’s your stove, you see,’ he ended; ‘I’ve chucked the old one overboard.’ It was a weakness of his, I should say here, to rejoice in throwing things overboard on the flimsiest pretexts. I afterwards suspected that the new stove had not been ‘really necessary’ any more than the rigging-screws, but was an excuse for gratifying this curious taste.
We smoked and chatted for a little, and then came the problem of going to bed. After much bumping of knuckles and head, and many giddy writhings, I mastered it, and lay between the rough blankets. Davies, moving swiftly and deftly, was soon in his.
‘It’s quite comfortable, isn’t it?’ he said, as he blew out the light from where he lay, with an accuracy which must have been the fruit of long practice.
I felt prickly all over, and there was a damp patch on the pillow, which was soon explained by a heavy drop of moisture falling on my forehead.
‘I suppose the deck’s not leaking?’ I said, as mildly as I could.
‘I’m awfully sorry,’ said Davies, earnestly, tumbling out of his bunk. ‘It must be the heavy dew. I did a lot of caulking yesterday, but I suppose I missed that place. I’ll run up and square it with an oilskin.’
‘What’s wrong with your hand?’ I asked, sleepily, on his return, for gratitude reminded me of that bandage.
‘Nothing much; I strained it the other day,’ was the reply; and then the seemingly inconsequent remark: ‘I’m glad you brought that prismatic compass. It’s not really necessary, of course; but’ (muffled by blankets) ‘it may come in useful.’