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, 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 Norden.
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 single day?
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 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 mybundle 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 keenly expectant.
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.