IN the late afternoon of the second day our flotilla reached the Elbe at Brunsbüttel and ranged up in the inner basin, while a big liner, whimpering like a fretful baby, was tenderly nursed into the lock. During the delay Davies left me in charge, and bolted off with an oil-can and a milk-jug. An official in uniform was passing along the quay from vessel to vessel counter-signing papers. I went up to meet him with our receipt for dues, which he signed carelessly. Then he paused and muttered ‘Dooltzhibella,’ scratching his head, ‘that was the name. English?’ he asked.
‘Little lust-cutter, that is so; there was an inquiry for you.’
‘A friend of yours from a big barge-yacht.’
‘Oh, I know; she went on to Hamburg, I suppose?’
‘No such luck, captain; she was outward bound.’
What did the man mean? He seemed to be vastly amused by something.
‘When was this–about three weeks ago?’ I asked, indifferently.
‘Three weeks? It was the day before yesterday. What a pity to miss him by so little!’ He chuckled and winked.
‘Did he leave any message?’ I asked.
‘It was a lady who inquired,’ whispered the fellow, sniggering.
‘Oh, really,’ I said, beginning to feel highly absurd, but keenly curious. ‘And she inquired about the Dulcibella?’
‘Herrgott! she was difficult to satisfy! Stood over me while I searched the books. “A very little one,” she kept saying, and “Are you sure all the names are here?” I saw her into her kleine Boot, and she rowed away in the rain. No, she left no message. It was dirty weather for a young fräulein to be out alone in. Ach! she was safe enough, though. To see her crossing the ebb in a chop of tide was a treat.’
‘And the yacht went on down the river? Where was she bound to?’
‘How do I know? Bremen, Wilhelmshaven, Emden – somewhere in the North Sea; too far for you.’
‘I don’t know about that,’ said I, bravely.
‘Ach! you will not follow in that? Are not you bound to Hamburg?’
‘We can change our plans. It seems a pity to have missed them.’
‘Think twice, captain, there are plenty of pretty girls in Hamburg. But you English will do anything. Well, viel Glück!’
He moved on, chuckling, to the next boat. Davies soon returned with his cans and an armful of dark, rye loaves, just in time, for, the liner being through, the flotilla was already beginning to jostle into the lock and Bartels was growing impatient.
‘They’ll last ten days,’ he said, as we followed the throng, still clinging like a barnacle to the side of the Johannes. We spent the few minutes while the lock was emptied in a farewell talk to Bartels. Karl had hitched their main halyards on to the windlass and was grinding at it in an acharnement of industry, his shock head jerking and his grubby face perspiring. Then the lock gates opened; and so, in a Babel of shouting, whining of blocks, and creaking of spars, our whole company was split out into the dingy bosom of the Elbe. The Johannes gathered way under wind and tide and headed for midstream. A last shake of the hand, and Bartels reluctantly slipped the head-rope and we drifted apart. ‘Gute Reise! Gute Reise!’ It was no time for regretful gazing, for the flood-tide was sweeping us up and out, and it was not until we had set the foresail, edged into a shallow bight, and let go our anchor, that we had leisure to think of him again; but by that time his and the other craft were shades in the murky east.
We swung close to a glacis of smooth blue mud which sloped up to a weed-grown dyke; behind lay the same flat country, colourless, humid; and opposite us, two miles away, scarcely visible in the deepening twilight, ran the outline of a similar shore. Between rolled the turgid Elbe. ‘The Styx flowing through Tartarus,’ I thought to myself, recalling some of our Baltic anchorages.
I told my news to Davies as soon as the anchor was down, instinctively leaving the sex of the inquirer to the last, as my informant had done.
‘The Medusa called yesterday?’ he interrupted. ‘And outward bound? That’s a rum thing. Why didn’t he inquire when he was going up?’
‘It was a lady,’ and I drily retailed the official’s story, very busy with a deck-broom the while. ‘We’re all square now, aren’t we?’ I ended. ‘I’ll go below and light the stove.’
Davies had been engaged in fixing up the riding-light. When I last saw him he was still so engaged, but motionless, the lantern under his left arm. and his right hand grasping the forestay and the half-knotted lanyard; his eyes staring fixedly down the river, a strange look in his face, half exultant, half perplexed. When he joined me and spoke he seemed to be concluding a difficult argument.
‘Anyway, it proves,’ he said, ‘that the Medusa has gone back to Norderney. That’s the main thing.’
‘Probably,’ I agreed, ‘but let’s sum up all we know. First, it’s certain that nobody we’ve met as yet has any suspicion of us‘
‘I told you he did it off his own bat,’ threw in Davies.
‘Or, secondly, of him. If he’s what you think it’s not known here.’
‘I can’t help that.’
‘Thirdly, he inquires for you on his way back from Hamburg, three weeks after the event. It doesn’t look as if he thought he had disposed of you–it doesn’t look as if he had meant to dispose of you. He sends his daughter, too–a curious proceeding under the circumstances. Perhaps it’s all a mistake.’
‘It’s not a mistake,’ said Davies, half to himself. ‘But did he send her? He’d have sent one of his men. He can’t be on board at all.’
This was a new light.
‘What do you mean?’ I asked.
‘He must have left the yacht when he got to Hamburg; some other devil’s work, I suppose. She’s being sailed back now, and passing here–‘
‘Oh, I see! It’s a private supplementary inquiry.’
‘That’s a long name to call it.’
‘Would the girl sail back alone with the crew?’
‘She’s used to the sea–and perhaps she isn’t alone. There was that stepmother–But it doesn’t make a ha’porth of difference to our plans: we’ll start on the ebb to-morrow morning.’
We were busier than usual that night, reckoning stores, tidying lockers, and securing movables. ‘We must economize,’ said Davies, for all the world as though we were castaways on a raft. ‘It’s a wretched thing to have to land somewhere to buy oil,’ was a favourite observation of his.
Before getting to sleep I was made to recognize a new factor in the conditions of navigation, now that the tideless Baltic was left behind us. A strong current was sluicing past our sides, and at the eleventh hour I was turned out, clad in pyjamas and oilskins (a horrible combination), to assist in running out a kedge or spare anchor.
‘What’s kedging-off?’ I asked, when we were tucked up again.
‘Oh, it’s when you run aground; you have to–but you’ll soon learn all about it.’ I steeled my heart for the morrow.