Presently a little white patch that I recognised as the Alterlie came dipping out from behind the harbour wall, and as she came up to me I let my jib draw and together we headed for the North Goodwin. That passed we had the wind on our beam, and I could lash my helm and make tea. Hour after hour we bowled along, the white cliffs of Sandgatte plainly visible. As the sun came near to its setting we could see the low coast that lies between Gravelines and Calais--could see Gravelines itself, and then with the deepening twiglight lost it again. The breeze fell light now, but we had the tide with us, and there was no need to hurry. I saw Alterlie's lights gleam out, and presently in the dinghy came Oswald to bear me company. As we held on our way up the coast we could hear sounds from the shore--a train--a dog barking--a French dog--as the excited Oswald said. We should have picked up the Snouw lightship, but owing to its having been temporarily replaced by a buoy we missed it, and were fairly in that brilliantly lighted fairway that leads to Dunkirk before we knew exactly where we were. It was nearly midnight before we were off the harbour, and very mysterious it looked with its innumerable twinkling lights, the dark shadow of the piles below, and the lapping water.
With my short gaff I was completely blanketed by the jetty, while Alterlie, more fortunate, came by like a liner, and for once, as I sculled my laborious way up the harbour, I envied her her high-peaked mainsail.
Arrived at last at the public quay, William laid his kedge out, carried a bow and stern warp to the quay, and hauled out broadside on to the kedge while I lay alongside him on the inner side. Then, my gear stowed, I went aboard Alterlie, to whose cabin the Douaniers had already penetrated.
Like cheery well-fed robins they sat there, drinking William's whisky, and in the inconsiderable pauses between drinks their honest cheeks bulged with his biscuits. But they were welcome enough. We were much too content with ourselves and all the world to grudge them a little refreshment, and while they made out our passports we drank to their jolly good selves and La Belle France. They are most magnificent documents, these Dunkirk passports, and amongst other things the President of the French Replublic assures you of his distinguished sentiments. And so he ought when you have to pay two francs for them!
Our guests were in no hurry. I daresay they found Alterlie's cabin a vast improvement on the cold darkness outside, and by the time we finally did get rid of them the dawn was breaking. In the grey half-light William and Oswald looked like a couple of haggard tramps, and I daresay I looked no better, but we were in no mood for sleep yet, and sat about watching Dunkirk slowly reveal itself in detail. The wharves were deserted; no sound came from the sleeping town except the sonorous chimes that rang out now and again from the Town Hall, and the only living creature within sight was an elfish old man on the quayside above our heads. He kept up an interminable sibilant whispering, for whose benefit we could not see, and as we sat about on Alterlie's cabin-top (the only place to sit on Alterlie!) we pondered lazily as to the subject of his discourse, why he should choose this unearthly hour for it, and most of all, why his listener should continue to be his listener. However, he departed at last and we turned in in broad daylight just as the town began to stir.
The next day we spent in idleness, for Dunkirk is too fine a town to slip in and out of again without a few hours on shore. And also, when weeks--months--ago we had planned this cruise, we had determined that we would sit in a certain cafe that overlooks the Place Jean Bart and drink the wine of the country. It was tempting Fate, I suppose, and we deserved to be shipwrecked for our presumption, but for once she was kind and gave us a sunny day for our junketing into the bargain. In the afternoon, only three parts awake, we exchanged the cafe for the little public garden that lies in the centre of the town. They laying out of these little public gardens is, I think, one of those things that they do better in France. They manage to create an atmosphere about them, a homeliness, that is sadly lacking in our corresponding attempts. And this is one of the very best. It is a tiny place, green and peaceful, and in its centre is a little circular basin in which a fountain plays. Round the basin is a gravel path, and round that again are seats on which in the drowsy summer evenings the townsfolk take their ease. The children play with the water, the little dogs bark, fat placid "bonnes" gossip with the imposing old gentleman in uniform who is responsible for law and order, and altogether there is an air of quiet content over the whole place.
For the rest Dunkirk is just a fine hearty seaport with excellently equipped docks. It has its "plage" which in the summer is crowded with trippers, but that is away from the town, and one might stay for a week in the place and not be aware of its existence.Part Two