I DOZED but fitfully, with a fretful sense of sore elbows and neck and many a draughty hiatus among the blankets. It was broad daylight before I had reached the stage of torpor in which such slumber merges. That was finally broken by the descent through the skylight of a torrent of water. I started up, bumped my head hard against the decks, and blinked leaden-eyed upwards.
‘Sorry! I’m scrubbing decks. Come up and bathe. Slept well?’ I heard a voice saying from aloft.
‘Fairly well,’ I growled, stepping out into a pool of water on the oilcloth. Thence I stumbled up the ladder, dived overboard, and buried bad dreams, stiffness, frowsiness, and tormented nerves in the loveliest fiord of the lovely Baltic. A short and furious swim and I was back again, searching for a means of ascent up the smooth black side, which, low as it was, was slippery and unsympathetic. Davies, in a loose canvas shirt, with the sleeves tucked up, and flannels rolled up to the knee, hung over me with a rope’s end, and chatted unconcernedly about the easiness of the job when you know how, adjuring me to mind the paint, and talking about an accommodation ladder he had once had, but had thrown overboard because it was so horribly in the way. When I arrived, my knees and elbows were picked out in black paint, to his consternation. Nevertheless, as I plied the towel, I knew that I had left in those limpid depths yet another crust of discontent and self-conceit.
As I dressed into flannels and blazer, I looked round the deck, and with an unskilled and doubtful eye took in all that the darkness had hitherto hidden. She seemed very small (in point of fact she was seven tons), something over thirty feet in length and nine in beam, a size very suitable to week-ends in the Solent, for such as liked that sort of thing; but that she should have come from Dover to the Baltic suggested a world of physical endeavour of which I had never dreamed. I passed to the aesthetic side. Smartness and beauty were essential to yachts, in my mind, but with the best resolves to be pleased I found little encouragement here. The hull seemed too low, and the mainmast too high; the cabin roof looked clumsy, and the skylights saddened the eye with dull iron and plebeian graining. What brass there was, on the tiller-head and elsewhere, was tarnished with sickly green. The decks had none of that creamy purity which Cowes expects, but were rough and grey, and showed tarry exhalations round the seams and rusty stains near the bows. The ropes and rigging were in mourning when contrasted with the delicate buff manilla so satisfying to the artistic eye as seen against the blue of a June sky at Southsea. Nor was the whole effect bettered by many signs of recent refitting. An impression of paint, varnish, and carpentry was in the air; a gaudy new burgee fluttered aloft; there seemed to be a new rope or two, especially round the diminutive mizzen-mast, which itself looked altogether new. But all this only emphasized the general plainness, reminding one of a respectable woman of the working-classes trying to dress above her station, and soon likely to give it up.
That the ensemble was businesslike and solid even my untrained eye could see. Many of the deck fittings seemed disproportionately substantial. The anchor-chain looked contemptuous of its charge; the binnacle with its compass was of a size and prominence almost comically impressive, and was, moreover the only piece of brass which was burnished and showed traces of reverent care. Two huge coils of stout and dingy warp lay just abaft the mainmast, and summed up the weather-beaten aspect of the little ship. I should add here that in the distant past she had been a lifeboat, and had been clumsily converted into a yacht by the addition of a counter, deck, and the necessary spars. She was built, as all lifeboats are, diagonally, of two skins of teak, and thus had immense strength, though, in the matter of looks, all a hybrid’s failings.
Hunger and ‘Tea’s made!’ from below brought me down to the cabin, where I found breakfast laid out on the table over the centre-board case, with Davies earnestly presiding, rather flushed as to the face, and sooty as to the fingers. There was a slight shortage of plate and crockery, but I praised the bacon and could do so truthfully, for its crisp and steaming shavings would have put to shame the efforts of my London cook. Indeed, I should have enjoyed the meal heartily were it not for the lowness of the sofa and table, causing a curvature of the body which made swallowing a more lengthy process than usual, and induced a periodical yearning to get up and stretch–a relief which spelt disaster to the skull. I noticed, too, that Davies spoke with a zest, sinister to me, of the delights of white bread and fresh milk, which he seemed to consider unusual luxuries, though suitable to an inaugural banquet in honour of a fastidious stranger. ‘One can’t be always going on shore,’ he said, when I showed a discreet interest in these things. ‘I lived for ten days on a big rye loaf over in the Frisian Islands.’
‘And it died hard, I suppose?’
‘Very hard, but’ (gravely) ‘quite good. After that I taught myself to make rolls; had no baking powder at first, so used Eno’s fruit salt, but they wouldn’t rise much with that. As for milk, condensed is — I hope you don’t mind it?’
I changed the subject, and asked about his plans.
‘Let’s get under way at once,’ he said, ‘and sail down the fiord.’ I tried for something more specific, but he was gone, and his voice drowned in the fo’c’sle by the clatter and swish of washing up. Thenceforward events moved with bewildering rapidity. Humbly desirous of being useful I joined him on deck, only to find that he scarcely noticed me, save as a new and unexpected obstacle in his round of activity. He was everywhere at once–heaving in chain, hooking on halyards, hauling ropes; while my part became that of the clown who does things after they are already done, for my knowledge of a yacht was of that floating and inaccurate kind which is useless in practice. Soon the anchor was up (a great rusty monster it was!), the sails set, and Davies was darting swiftly to and fro between the tiller and jib-sheets, while the Dulcibella bowed a lingering farewell to the shore and headed for the open fiord. Erratic puffs from the high land behind made her progress timorous at first, but soon the fairway was reached and a true breeze from Flensburg and the west took her in its friendly grip. Steadily she rustled down the calm blue highway whose soft beauty was the introduction to a passage in my life, short, but pregnant with moulding force, through stress and strain, for me and others.
Davies was gradually resuming his natural self, with abstracted intervals, in which he lashed the helm to finger a distant rope, with such speed that the movements seemed simultaneous. Once he vanished, only to reappear in an instant with a chart, which he studied, while steering, with a success that its reluctant folds seemed to render impossible. Waiting respectfully for his revival I had full time to look about. The fiord here was about a mile broad. From the shore we had left the hills rose steeply, but with no rugged grandeur; the outlines were soft; there were green spaces and rich woods on the lower slopes; a little white town was opening up in one place, and scattered farms dotted the prospect. The other shore, which I could just see, framed between the gunwale and the mainsail, as I sat leaning against the hatchway, and sadly missing a deck-chair, was lower and lonelier, though prosperous and pleasing to the eye. Spacious pastures led up by slow degrees to ordered clusters of wood, which hinted at the presence of some great manor house. Behind us, Flensburg was settling into haze. Ahead, the scene was shut in by the contours of hills, some clear, some dreamy and distant. Lastly, a single glimpse of water shining between the folds of hill far away hinted at spaces of distant sea of which this was but a secluded inlet. Everywhere was that peculiar charm engendered by the association of quiet pastoral country and a homely human atmosphere with a branch of the great ocean that bathes all the shores of our globe.
There was another charm in the scene, due to the way in which I was viewing it–not as a pampered passenger on a ‘fine steam yacht’, or even on ‘a powerful modern schooner’, as the yacht agents advertise, but from the deck of a scrubby little craft of doubtful build and distressing plainness, which yet had smelt her persistent way to this distant fiord through I knew not what of difficulty and danger, with no apparent motive in her single occupant, who talked as vaguely and unconcernedly about his adventurous cruise as though it were all a protracted afternoon on Southampton Water.
I glanced round at Davies. He had dropped the chart and was sitting, or rather half lying, on the deck with one bronzed arm over the tiller, gazing fixedly ahead, with just an occasional glance around and aloft. He still seemed absorbed in himself, and for a moment or two I studied his face with an attention I had never, since I had known him, given it. I had always thought it commonplace, as I had thought him commonplace, so far as I had thought at all about either. It had always rather irritated me by an excess of candour and boyishness. These qualities it had kept, but the scales were falling from my eyes, and I saw others. I saw strength to obstinacy and courage to recklessness, in the firm lines of the chin; an older and deeper look in the eyes. Those odd transitions from bright mobility to detached earnestness, which had partly amused and chiefly annoyed me hitherto, seemed now to be lost in a sensitive reserve, not cold or egotistic, but strangely winning from its paradoxical frankness. Sincerity was stamped on every lineament. A deep misgiving stirred me that, clever as I thought myself, nicely perceptive of the right and congenial men to know, I had made some big mistakes–how many, I wondered? A relief, scarcely less deep because it was unconfessed, stole in on me with the suspicion that, little as I deserved it, the patient fates were offering me a golden chance of repairing at least one. And yet, I mused, the patient fates have crooked methods, besides a certain mischievous humour, for it was Davies who had asked me out–though now he scarcely seemed to need me–almost tricked me into coming out, for he might have known I was not suited to such a life; yet trickery and Davies sounded an odd conjuncture.
Probably it was the growing discomfort of my attitude which produced this backsliding. My night’s rest and the ‘ascent from the bath’ had, in fact, done little to prepare me for contact with sharp edges and hard surfaces. But Davies had suddenly come to himself, and with an ‘I say, are you comfortable? Have something to sit on?’ jerked the helm a little to windward, felt it like a pulse for a moment, with a rapid look to windward, and dived below, whence he returned with a couple of cushions, which he threw to me. I felt perversely resentful of these luxuries, and asked:
‘Can’t I be of any use?’
‘Oh, don’t you bother,’ he answered. ‘I expect you’re tired. Aren’t we having a splendid sail? That must be Ekken on the port bow,’ peering under the sail, ‘where the trees run in. I say, do you mind looking at the chart?’ He tossed it over to me. I spread it out painfully, for it curled up like a watch-spring at the least slackening of pressure. I was not familiar with charts, and this sudden trust reposed in me, after a good deal of neglect, made me nervous.
‘You see Flensburg, don’t you?’ he said. ‘That’s where we are,’ dabbing with a long reach at an indefinite space on the crowded sheet. ‘Now which side of that buoy off the point do we pass?’
I had scarcely taken in which was land and which was water, much less the significance of the buoy, when he resumed: ‘Never mind; I’m pretty sure it’s all deep water about here. I expect that marks the fair-way for steamers.
In a minute or two we were passing the buoy in question, on the wrong side I am pretty certain, for weeds and sand came suddenly into view below us with uncomfortable distinctness. But all Davies said was: ‘There’s never any sea here, and the plate’s not down,’ a dark utterance which I pondered doubtfully. ‘The best of these Schleswig waters,’ he went on, ‘is that a boat of this size can go almost anywhere. There’s no navigation required. Why–‘At this moment a faint scraping was felt, rather than heard, beneath us.
‘Aren’t we aground?’ I asked, with great calmness.
‘Oh, she’ll blow over,’ he replied, wincing a little.
She ‘blew over’, but the episode caused a little naive vexation in Davies. I relate it as a good instance of one of his minor peculiarities. He was utterly without that didactic pedantry which yachting has a fatal tendency to engender in men who profess it. He had tossed me the chart without a thought that I was an ignoramus, to whom it would be Greek, and who would provide him with an admirable subject to drill and lecture, just as his neglect of me throughout the morning had been merely habitual and unconscious independence. In the second place, master of his métier, as I knew him afterwards to be, resourceful, skilful, and alert, he was liable to lapse into a certain amateurish vagueness, half irritating and half amusing. I think truly that both these peculiarities came from the same source, a hatred of any sort of affectation. To the same source I traced the fact that he and his yacht observed none of the superficial etiquette of yachts and yachtsmen, that she never, for instance, flew a national ensign, and he never wore a ‘yachting suit’.
We rounded a low green point which I had scarcely noticed before.
‘We must jibe,’ said Davies: ‘just take the helm, will you?’ and, without waiting for my co-operation, he began hauling in the mainsheet with great vigour. I had rude notions of steering, but jibing is a delicate operation. No yachtsman will be surprised to hear that the boom saw its opportunity and swung over with a mighty crash, with the mainsheet entangled round me and the tiller.
‘Jibed all standing,’ was his sorrowful comment. ‘You’re not used to her yet. She’s very quick on the helm.’
‘Where am I to steer for?’ I asked, wildly.
‘Oh, don’t trouble, I’ll take her now,’ he replied.
I felt it was time to make my position clear. ‘I’m an utter duffer at sailing,’ I began. ‘You’ll have a lot to teach me, or one of these days I shall be wrecking you. You see, there’s always been a crew–‘
‘Crew!’–with sovereign contempt–‘why, the whole fun of the thing is to do everything oneself.’
‘Well, I’ve felt in the way the whole morning.’
‘I’m awfully sorry!’ His dismay and repentance were comical. ‘Why, it’s just the other way; you may be all the use in the world.’ He became absent.
We were following the inward trend of a small bay towards a cleft in the low shore.
‘That’s Ekken Sound,’ said Davies; ‘let’s look into it,’ and a minute or two later we were drifting through a dainty little strait, with a peep of open water at the end of it. Cottages bordered either side. some overhanging the very water, some connecting with it by a rickety wooden staircase or a miniature landing-stage. Creepers and roses rioted over the walls and tiny porches. For a space on one side, a rude quay, with small smacks floating off it, spoke of some minute commercial interests; a very small tea-garden, with neglected-looking bowers and leaf-strewn tables, hinted at some equally minute tripping interest. A pervading hue of mingled bronze and rose came partly from the weather-mellowed woodwork of the cottages and stages, and partly from the creepers and the trees behind, where autumn’s subtle fingers were already at work. Down this exquisite sea-lane we glided till it ended in a broad mere, where our sails, which had been shivering and complaining, filled into contented silence.
‘Ready about! ‘ said Davies, callously. ‘We must get out of this again.’ And round we swung.
‘Why not anchor and stop here?’ I protested; for a view of tantalizing loveliness was unfolding itself.
‘Oh, we’ve seen all there is to be seen, and we must take this breeze while we’ve got it.’ It was always torture to Davies to feel a good breeze running to waste while he was inactive at anchor or on shore. The ‘shore’ to him was an inferior element, merely serving as a useful annexe to the water–a source of necessary supplies.
‘Let’s have lunch,’ he pursued, as we resumed our way down the fiord. A vision of iced drinks, tempting salads, white napery, and an attentive steward mocked me with past recollections.
‘You’ll find a tongue,’ said the voice of doom, ‘in the starboard sofa-locker; beer under the floor in the bilge. I’ll see her round that buoy, if you wouldn’t mind beginning.’ I obeyed with a bad grace, but the close air and cramped posture must have benumbed my faculties, for I opened the port-side locker, reached down, and grasped a sticky body, which turned out to be a pot of varnish. Recoiling wretchedly, I tried the opposite one, combating the embarrassing heel of the boat and the obstructive edges of the centre-board case. A medley of damp tins of varied sizes showed in the gloom, exuding a mouldy odour. Faded legends on dissolving paper, like the remnants of old posters on a disused hoarding, spoke of soups, curries, beefs, potted meats, and other hidden delicacies. I picked out a tongue, re-imprisoned the odour, and explored for beer. It was true, I supposed, that bilge didn’t hurt it, as I tugged at the plank on my hands and knees, but I should have myself preferred a more accessible and less humid wine-cellar than the cavities among slimy ballast from which I dug the bottles. I regarded my hard-won and ill-favoured pledges of a meal with giddiness and discouragement.
‘How are you getting on?’ shouted Davies; ‘the tin-opener’s hanging up on the bulkhead; the plates and knives are in the cupboard.’
I doggedly pursued my functions. The plates and knives met me half-way, for, being on the weather side, and thus having a downward slant, its contents, when I slipped the latch, slid affectionately into my bosom, and overflowed with a clatter and jingle on to the floor.
‘That often happens,’ I heard from above. ‘Never mind! There are no breakables. I’m coming down to help.’ And down he came, leaving the Dulcibella to her own devices.
‘I think I’ll go on deck,’ I said. ‘Why in the world couldn’t you lunch comfortably at Ekken and save this infernal pandemonium of a picnic? Where’s the yacht going to meanwhile? And how are we to lunch on that slanting table? I’m covered with varnish and mud, and ankle-deep in crockery. There goes the beer!’
‘You shouldn’t have stood it on the table with this list on,’ said Davies, with intense composure, ‘but it won’t do any harm; it’ll drain into the bilge’ (ashes to ashes, dust to dust, I thought). ‘You go on deck now, and I’ll finish getting ready.’ I regretted my explosion, though wrung from me under great provocation.
‘Keep her straight on as she’s going,’ said Davies, as I clambered up out of the chaos, brushing the dust off my trousers and varnishing the ladder with my hands. I unlashed the helm and kept her as she was going.
We had rounded a sharp bend in the fiord, and were sailing up a broad and straight reach which every moment disclosed new beauties, sights fair enough to be balm to the angriest spirit. A red-roofed hamlet was on our left, on the right an ivied ruin, close to the water, where some contemplative cattle stood knee-deep. The view ahead was a white strand which fringed both shores, and to it fell wooded slopes, interrupted here and there by low sandstone cliffs of warm red colouring, and now and again by a dingle with cracks of greensward.
I forgot petty squalors and enjoyed things–the coy tremble of the tiller and the backwash of air from the dingy mainsail, and, with a somewhat chastened rapture, the lunch which Davies brought up to me and solicitously watched me eat.
Later, as the wind sank to lazy airs, he became busy with a larger topsail and jib; but I was content to doze away the afternoon, drenching brain and body in the sweet and novel foreign atmosphere, and dreamily watching the fringe of glen cliff and cool white sand as they passed ever more slowly by.
‘WAKE up!’ I rubbed my eyes and wondered where I was; stretched myself painfully, too, for even the cushions had not given me a true bed of roses. It was dusk, and the yacht was stationary in glassy water, coloured by the last after-glow. A roofing of thin upper-cloud had spread over most of the sky, and a subtle smell of rain was in the air. We seemed to be in the middle of the fiord, whose shores looked distant and steep in the gathering darkness. Close ahead they faded away suddenly, and the sight lost itself in a grey void. The stillness was absolute.
‘We can’t get to Sonderburg to-night,’ said Davies.
‘What’s to be done then?’ I asked, collecting my senses.
‘Oh! we’ll anchor anywhere here, we’re just at the mouth of the fiord; I’ll tow her inshore if you’ll steer in that direction.’ He pointed vaguely at a blur of trees and cliff. Then he jumped into the dinghy, cast off the painter, and, after snatching at the slack of a rope, began towing the reluctant yacht by short jerks of the sculls. The menacing aspect of that grey void, combined with a natural preference for getting to some definite place at night, combined to depress my spirits afresh. In my sleep I had dreamt of Morven Lodge, of heather tea-parties after glorious slaughters of grouse, of salmon leaping in amber pools–and now–
‘Just take a cast of the lead, will you?’ came Davies’s voice above the splash of the sculls.
‘Where is it?’ I shouted back.
‘Never mind – we’re close enough now; let– Can you manage to let go the anchor?’
I hurried forward and picked impotently at the bonds of the sleeping monster. But Davies was aboard again, and stirred him with a deft touch or two, till he crashed into the water with a grinding of chain.
‘We shall do well here,’ said he.
‘Isn’t this rather an open anchorage?’ I suggested.
‘It’s only open from that quarter,’ he replied. ‘If it comes on to blow from there we shall have to clear out; but I think it’s only rain. Let’s stow the sails.’
Another whirlwind of activity, in which I joined as effectively as I could, oppressed by the prospect of having to ‘clear out’ — who knows whither? — at midnight. But Davies’s sang froid was infectious, I suppose, and the little den below, bright-lit and soon fragrant with cookery, pleaded insistently for affection. Yachting in this singular style was hungry work, I found. Steak tastes none the worse for having been wrapped in newspaper, and the slight traces of the day’s news disappear with frying in onions and potato-chips. Davies was indeed on his mettle for this, his first dinner to his guest; for he produced with stealthy pride, not from the dishonoured grave of the beer, but from some more hallowed recess, a bottle of German champagne, from which we drank success to the Dulcibella.
‘I wish you would tell me all about your cruise from England,’ I asked. ‘You must have had some exciting adventures. Here are the charts; let’s go over them.’
‘We must wash up first,’ he replied, and I was tactfully introduced to one of his very few ‘standing orders’, that tobacco should not burn, nor post-prandial chat begin, until that distasteful process had ended. ‘It would never get done otherwise,’ he sagely opined. But when we were finally settled with cigars, a variety of which, culled from many ports — German, Dutch, and Belgian — Davies kept in a battered old box in the net-rack, the promised talk hung fire…
‘I’m no good at description,’ he complained; ‘and there’s really very little to tell. We left Dover — Morrison and I — on 6th August; made a good passage to Ostend.’
‘You had some fun there, I suppose?’ I put in, thinking of — well, of Ostend in August.
‘Fun! A filthy hole I call it; we had to stop a couple of days, as we fouled a buoy coming in and carried away the bobstay; we lay in a dirty little tidal dock, and there was nothing to do on shore.’
‘Well, what next?’
‘We had a splendid sail to the East Scheldt, but then, like fools, decided to go through Holland by canal and river. It was good fun enough navigating the estuary — the tides and banks there are appalling — but farther inland it was a wretched business, nothing but paying lock-dues, bumping against schuyts, and towing down stinking canals. Never a peaceful night like this — always moored by some quay or tow-path, with people passing and boys. Heavens! shall I ever forget those boys! A perfect murrain of them infests Holland; they seem to have nothing in the world to do but throw stones and mud at foreign yachts.’
‘They want a Herod, with some statesmanlike views on infanticide.’
‘By Jove! yes; but the fact is that you want a crew for that pottering inland work; they can smack the boys and keep an eye on the sculls. A boat like this should stick to the sea, or out-of-the-way places on the coast. Well, after Amsterdam.’
‘You’ve skipped a good deal, haven’t you?’ I interrupted.
‘Oh! have I? Well, let me see, we went by Dordrecht to Rotterdam; nothing to see there, and swarms of tugs buzzing about and shaving one’s bows every second. On by the Vecht river to Amsterdam, and thence — Lord, what a relief it was! — out into the North Sea again. The weather had been still and steamy; but it broke up finely now, and we had a rattling three-reef sail to the Zuyder Zee.’
He reached up to the bookshelf for what looked like an ancient ledger, and turned over the leaves.
‘Is that your log?’ I asked. ‘I should like to have a look at it.’
‘Oh! you’d find it dull reading — if you could read it at all; it’s just short notes about winds and bearings, and so on.’ He was turning some leaves over rapidly. ‘Now, why don’t you keep a log of what we do? I can’t describe things, and you can.’ ‘
‘I’ve half a mind to try,’ I said.
‘We want another chart now,’ and he pulled down a second yet more stained and frayed than the first. ‘We had a splendid time then exploring the Zuyder Zee, its northern part at least, and round those islands which bound it on the north. Those are the Frisian Islands, and they stretch for 120 miles or so eastward. You see, the first two of them, Texel and Vlieland, shut in the Zuyder Zee, and the rest border the Dutch and German coasts.’
‘What’s all this?’ I said, running my finger over some dotted patches which covered much of the chart. The latter was becoming unintelligible; clean-cut coasts and neat regiments of little figures had given place to a confusion of winding and intersecting lines and bald spaces.
‘All sand,’ said Davies, enthusiastically. ‘You can’t think what a splendid sailing-ground it is. You can explore for days without seeing a soul. These are the channels, you see; they’re very badly charted. This chart was almost useless, but it made it all the more fun. No towns or harbours, just a village or two on the islands, if you wanted stores.’
‘They look rather desolate,’ I said.
‘Desolate’s no word for it; they’re really only gigantic sand-banks themselves.’
‘Wasn’t all this rather dangerous?’ I asked.
‘Not a bit; you see, that’s where our shallow draught and flat bottom came in–we could go anywhere, and it didn’t matter running aground — she’s perfect for that sort of work; and she doesn’t really look bad either, does she?’ he asked, rather wistfully. I suppose I hesitated, for he said, abruptly:
‘Anyway, I don’t go in for looks.’
He had leaned back, and I detected traces of incipient absentmindedness. His cigar, which he had lately been lighting and relighting feverishly — a habit of his when excited — seemed now to have expired for good.
‘About running aground,’ I persisted; ‘surely that’s apt to be dangerous?’
He sat up and felt round for a match.
‘Not the least, if you know where you can run risks and where you can’t; anyway, you can’t possibly help it. That chart may look simple to you’–(‘simple!’ I thought)–‘but at half flood all those banks are covered; the islands and coasts are scarcely visible, they are so low, and everything looks the same.’ This graphic description of a ‘splendid cruising-ground’ took away my breath. ‘Of course there is risk sometimes–choosing an anchorage requires care. You can generally get a nice berth under the lee of a bank, but the tides run strong in the channels, and if there’s a gale blowing–‘
“Didn’t you ever take a pilot?’ I interrupted.
‘Pilot? Why, the whole point of the thing’–he stopped short–‘I did take one once, later on,’ he resumed, with an odd smile, which faded at once.
‘Well?’ I urged, for I saw a reverie was coming.
‘Oh! he ran me ashore, of course. Served me right. I wonder what the weather’s doing’; he rose, glanced at the aneroid, the clock, and the half-closed skylight with a curious circular movement, and went a step or two up the companion-ladder, where he remained for several minutes with head and shoulders in the open air.
There was no sound of wind outside, but the Dulcibella had begun to move in her sleep, as it were, rolling drowsily to some taint send of the sea, with an occasional short jump, like the start of an uneasy dreamer.
‘What does it look like?’ I called from my sofa. I had to repeat the question.
‘Rain coming,’ said Davies, returning, ‘and possibly wind; but we’re safe enough here. It’s coming from the sou’-west; shall we turn in?’
‘We haven’t finished your cruise yet,’ I said. ‘Light a pipe and tell me the rest.’
‘All right,’ he agreed, with more readiness than I expected.
‘After Terschelling–here it is, the third island from the west–I pottered along eastward.’
‘Oh! I forgot. Morrison had to leave me there. I missed him badly. but I hoped at that time to get–to join me. I could manage all right single-handed, but for that sort of work two are much better than one. The plate’s beastly heavy; in fact, I had to give up using it for fear of a smash.’
‘After Terschelling?’ I jogged his memory.
‘Well, I followed the Dutch islands, Ameland, Schiermonnikoog, Rottum (outlandish names, aren’t they?), sometimes outside them, sometimes inside. It was a bit lonely, but grand sport and very interesting. The charts were shocking, but I worried out most of the channels.’
‘I suppose those waters are only used by small local craft?’ I put in; that would account for inaccuracies.’ Did Davies think that Admiralties had time to waste on smoothing the road for such quixotic little craft as his, in all its inquisitive ramblings? But he fired up.
‘That’s all very well,’ he said, ‘but think what folly it is. However, that’s a long story, and will bore you. To cut matters short, for we ought to be turning in, I got to Borkum–that’s the first of the German islands.’ He pointed at a round bare lozenge lying in the midst of a welter of sandbanks. ‘Rottum–this queer little one–it has only one house on it–is the most easterly Dutch island, and the mainland of Holland ends here, opposite it, at the Ems River’–indicating a dismal cavity in the coast, sown with names suggestive of mud, and wrecks, and dreariness.
‘What date was this?’ I asked.
‘About the ninth of this month.’
‘Why, that’s only a fortnight before you wired to me! You were pretty quick getting to Flensburg. Wait a bit, we want another chart. Is this the next?’
‘Yes; but we scarcely need it. I only went a little way farther on–to Norderney, in fact, the third German island–then I decided to go straight for the Baltic. I had always had an idea of getting there, as Knight did in the Falcon. So I made a passage of it to the Eider River, there on the West Schleswig coast, took the river and canal through to Kiel on the Baltic, and from there made another passage up north to Flensburg…’
‘…I was a week there, and then you came, and here we are. And now let’s turn in. We’ll have a fine sail to-morrow!’
He ended with rather forced vivacity, and briskly rolled up the chart. The reluctance he had shown from the first to talk about his cruise had been for a brief space forgotten in his enthusiasm about a portion of it, but had returned markedly in this bald conclusion. I felt sure that there was more in it than mere disinclination to spin nautical yarns in the ‘hardy Corinthian’ style, which can be so offensive in amateur yachtsmen; and I thought I guessed the explanation. His voyage single-handed to the Baltic from the Frisian Islands had been a foolhardy enterprise, with perilous incidents, which, rather than make light of, he would not refer to at all. Probably he was ashamed of his recklessness and wished to ignore it with me, an inexperienced acquaintance not yet enamoured of the Dulcibella’s way of life, whom both courtesy and interest demanded that he should inspire with confidence. I liked him all the better as I came to this conclusion, but I was tempted to persist a little.
‘I slept the whole afternoon,’ I said; ‘and, to tell the truth, I rather dread the idea of going to bed, it’s so tiring. Look here, you’ve rushed over that last part like an express train. That passage to the Schleswig coast–the Eider River, did you say?–was a longish one, wasn’t it?’
‘Well, you see what it was; about seventy miles, I suppose, direct.’ He spoke low, bending down to sweep up some cigar ashes on the floor.
‘Direct?’ I insinuated. ‘Then you put in somewhere?’
‘I stopped once, anchored for the night; oh, that’s nothing of a sail with a fair wind. By Jove! I’ve forgotten to caulk that seam over your bunk, and it’s going to rain. I must do it now. You turn in.’
He disappeared. My curiosity, never very consuming, was banished by concern as to the open seam; for the prospect of a big drop, remorseless and regular as Fate, falling on my forehead throughout the night, as in the torture-chamber of the Inquisition, was alarming enough to recall me wholly to the immediate future. So I went to bed, finding on the whole that I had made progress in the exercise, though still far from being the trained contortionist that the occasion called for. Hammering ceased, and Davies reappeared just as I was stretched on the rack–tucked up in my bunk, I mean.
‘I say,’ he said, when he was settled in his, and darkness reigned, ‘do you think you’ll like this sort of thing?’
‘If there are many places about here as beautiful as this,’ I replied, ‘I think I shall. But I should like to land now and then and have a walk. Of course, a great deal depends on the weather, doesn’t it? I hope this rain’ (drops had begun to patter overhead) ‘doesn’t mean that the summer’s over for good.’
‘Oh, you can sail just the same,’ said Davies, ‘unless it’s very bad. There’s plenty of sheltered water. There’s bound to be a change soon. But then there are the ducks. The colder and stormier it is, the better for them.’
I had forgotten the ducks and the cold, and, suddenly presented as a shooting-box in inclement weather, the Dulcibella lost ground in my estimation, which she had latterly gained.
‘I’m fond of shooting,’ I said, ‘but I’m afraid I’m only a fair-weather yachtsman, and I should much prefer sun and scenery.’
‘Scenery,’ he repeated, reflectively. ‘I say, you must have thought it a queer taste of mine to cruise about on that outlandish Frisian coast. How would you like that sort of thing?’
‘I should loathe it,’ I answered, promptly, with a clear conscience. ‘Weren’t you delighted yourself to get to the Baltic? It must be a wonderful contrast to what you described. Did you ever see another yacht there?’
‘Only one,’ he answered. ‘Good night!’