About the Author
Henning Mankell is the prizewining and internationally acclaimed author of the Inspector Wallander mysteries, now dominating bestseller lists throughout Europe. He devotes much of his free time to working with Aids charities in Africa, where he is director of the Teatro Avenida in Maputo.
Laurie Thompson is the translator into English of several other books by Henning Mankell, as well as novels by Åke Edwardson, Hakan Nesser and Mikael Niemi.
This story takes place in a borderland between reality and my own invention.
I have redrawn many sea charts, given islands new names, added new bays and eliminated others. Anybody who tries to sail along the shipping lanes I have sketched out must reckon with coming upon lots of unexpected shallows and other hazards.
In December 2001 the Swedish Navy handed over responsibility for hydrographic surveys in Swedish waters to civilian organisations. I hope both they and all earlier generations of hydrographic engineers will forgive me for creating my own routines regarding the charting of naval channels. What is beyond dispute is that the sounding lead that was dropped into the water and allowed to sink down to the seabed was the instrument originally used to decide the safest route for ships to follow.
I had the sounding lead used in this novel made in Manchester. That could well have been a fact, but need not be.
Many of the ships that feature in the novel did exist, but were long since sent to the scrapyard or have otherwise disappeared from our consciousness. Other vessels have been constructed by me, in my role as shipbuilder. I have increased and decreased tonnages, downsized the crew or added an artillery officer when it seemed to me appropriate.
To be frank, I have been rather self-indulgent.
Some of the people I describe have also existed. But most of them have never set foot on the islands in the beautiful, barren and occasionally stormy östergötland archipelago. Nor have they been bosuns or captains on board Swedish naval vessels.
Nevertheless, I can imagine them – in the shadowy world where history and imagination merge, on the literary shores where the flotsam and jetsam of fantasy and reality intermingle.
Some years ago, in the early 1990s, I rowed through the fog in the Gryt archipelago. Later, when the weather had cleared up and everything seemed reminiscent of a curious dream, this story was born.
Maputo, August 2004
Kurt Wallander Series
Faceless Killers
The Dogs of Riga
The White Lioness
The Man Who Smiled
The Fifth Woman
One Step Behind
Before the Frost
The Pyramid
The Return of the Dancing Master
Chronicler of the Winds
Kennedy’s Brain
The Eye of the Leopard
Italian Shoes
The Man from Beijing
Non Fiction
I Die, but the Memory Lives on
Young Adult Fiction
A Bridge to the Stars
Shadows in the Twilight
When the Snow Fell
The Journey to the End of the World
Children’s Fiction
The Cat Who Liked Rain
They used to say that when there was no wind the cries of the lunatics could be heard on the other side of the lake.
Especially in autumn. The cries belonged to autumn.
Autumn is when this story begins. In a damp fog, with the temperature hovering just above freezing, and a woman who suddenly realises that freedom is at hand. She has found a hole in a fence.
It is the autumn of 1937. The woman is called Kristina Tacker and for many years she has been locked away in the big asylum near Säter. All thoughts of time have lost their meaning for her.
She stares at the hole for ages, as if she does not grasp its significance. The fence has always been a barrier she should not get too close to. It is a boundary with a quite specific significance.
But this sudden change? This gap that has appeared in the fence? A door has been opened by an unknown hand, leading to what was until now forbidden territory. It takes a long time for it to sink in. Then, cautiously, she crawls through the hole and finds herself on the other side. She stands, motionless, listening, her head hunched down between her tense shoulders, waiting for somebody to come and take hold of her.
For all the twenty-two years she has been shut away in the asylum she has never felt surrounded by people, only by puffs of breath. Puffs of breath are her invisible warders.
The big, heavy buildings are behind her, like sleeping beasts, ready to pounce. She waits. Time has stood still. Nobody comes to take her back.
Only after prolonged hesitation does she take a first step, then another, until she disappears into the trees.
She is in a coniferous forest. There is an acrid smell, reminiscent of rutting horses. She thinks she can make out a path. She makes slow progress, and only when she notices that the heavy breathing which surrounded her in the asylum is no longer there can she bring herself to turn round.
Nothing but trees on every side. She does not worry about the path having been a figment of her imagination and no longer discernible, as she is not going anywhere in particular. She is like scaffolding surrounding an empty space. She does not exist. Within the scaffolding there has never been a building, or a person.
Now she is moving very quickly through the forest, as if she did have an objective beyond the pine trees after all. From time to time she stands, stock-still, as if by degrees turning into a tree herself.
Time does not exist in the forest. Only trunks of trees, mostly pine, the occasional spruce, and sunbeams tumbling noiselessly to the damp earth.
She starts trembling. A pain comes creeping under her skin. At first she thinks it is that awful itchy feeling that affects her sometimes and forces the warders to strap her down to prevent her from scratching herself raw. Then it comes to her that there is another reason for her trembling.
She remembers that, once upon a time, she had a husband.
She has no idea what has prompted that memory. But she recalls very clearly having been married. His name was Lars, she remembers that. He had a scar over his left eye and was twenty-three centimetres taller than she was. That is all she can remember for the moment. Everything else has been repressed and banished into the darkness that fills her being.
But her memory is reviving. She stares round at the tree trunks in confusion. Why should she start thinking about her husband just here? A man who hated forests and was always drawn to the sea? A midshipman, and eventually a hydrographic survey engineer with the rank of Commander, employed on secret military missions?
The fog starts to disperse, melting away.
She stands rooted to the spot. A bird takes off, clattering somewhere out of sight. Then all is silent again.
My husband, Kristina Tacker thinks. I once had a husband, our lives were intertwined. Why do I remember him now, when I have found a hole in the fence and left all those watchful predators behind?
She searches her mind and among the trees for an answer.
There is none. There is nothing.
Late in the night the warders find Kristina Tacker.
It is frosty, the ground creaks under their feet. She is standing in the darkness, not moving, staring at a tree trunk. What she sees is not a pine tree but a remote lighthouse in a barren and deserted archipelago at the edge of the open sea. She scarcely notices that she is no longer alone with the silent tree trunks.
That day in the autumn of 1937 Kristina Tacker is fifty-seven years old. There is a trace of her former beauty lingering in her face. It is twelve years since she last uttered a word. Her hospital records repeat the phrase, day after day, year after year:
The patient is still beyond reach.
That same night: it is dark in her room in the rambling mental hospital. She is awake. A lighthouse beam sweeps past, time after time, like a silent tolling of light inside her head.
Twenty-three years earlier, also on an autumn day, her husband was contemplating the destroyer Svea, moored at the Galärvarv Quay in Stockholm. Lars Tobiasson-Svartman was a naval officer and cast a critical eye over the vessel. Beyond her soot-stained funnels he could make out Kastellet and Skeppsholm Church. The light was grey, forcing him to screw up his eyes.
It was the middle of October 1914, the Great War had been raging for exactly two months and nineteen days. Lars Tobiasson-Svartman did not have unqualified faith in these new armoured warships. The older wooden ships always gave him the feeling of entering a warm room. The new ones, with hulls comprising sheets of armour-plating welded together, were cold rooms, unpredictable rooms. He felt deep down that these vessels would not allow themselves to be tamed. Beyond the coal-fired steam engines or the new oil-driven ones were other forces that could not be controlled.
Now and then came a gust of wind from Saltsjön.
He stood by the steep gangplank, hesitating. It made him feel confused. Where did this insecurity come from? Ought he to abandon his voyage before it had even begun? He searched for an explanation, but all his thoughts had vanished, swallowed up by a bank of mist sweeping along inside him.
A sailor hurried down the gangplank. That brought Tobiasson-Svartman down to earth. Not being in control of himself was a weakness it was essential to conceal. The rating took his suitcases, his rolled-up sea charts and the brown, specially made bag containing his most treasured measuring instrument. He was surprised to find that the rating could manage all the cumbersome luggage without assistance.
The gangplank swayed under his feet. He could just make out the water between the quay and the hull of the ship, dark, distant.
He thought about what his wife had said when they said goodbye in their flat in Wallingatan.
‘Now you’re embarking on something you’ve been aching to do for so long.’
They were standing in their dimly lit hall. She had intended to accompany him to his ship before saying goodbye, but as she started to put on her gloves she hesitated, just as he had done at the foot of the gangplank.
She did not explain why the leave-taking had suddenly become too much for her. That was not necessary. She did not want to start crying. After nine years of marriage he knew it was harder for her to let him see her crying than to be naked before him.
They said goodbye hurriedly. He tried to reassure her that he was not disappointed.
In fact, he felt relieved.
He paused halfway along the gangplank, savouring the almost imperceptible motion of the ship. She was right. He had been longing to get away. But he was not at all sure what he was longing for.
Was there a secret inside him of which he was not aware?
He was very much in love with his wife. Every time he had to leave for a tour of duty and said goodbye to her, he unobtrusively breathed in the scent of her skin, kissing her hastily. It was as if he were laying down that perfume, as you do a fine wine, or perhaps an opiate, to take out whenever he felt so forlorn that he risked losing his self-possession.
His wife still used her maiden name. He had no idea why, and did not want to ask.
A tug boomed from the direction of Kastellholmen. A seagull hovered in the updraught over the ship.
He was a solitary man. His solitary nature was like an abyss that he was afraid he might one day fall into. He had worked out that the abyss must be at least forty metres deep, and that he would leap into it head first, so as to be certain of dying.
He was at the exact middle of the gangplank. He had estimated its total length by eye at seven metres. So now he was precisely three and a half metres from the quay and just as far from the ship’s rail.
His earliest memories were to do with measurements. Between himself and his mother, between his mother and his father, between the floor and the ceiling, between sorrow and joy. His whole life was made up of distances, measuring, abbreviating or extending them. He was a solitary person constantly seeking new distances to estimate or measure.
Measuring distances was a sort of ritual, his personal means of reining in the movements of time and space.
From the start, from as far back as he could remember, solitude had been like his own skin.
Kristina Tacker was not only his wife. She was also the invisible lid he used to cover the abyss.
On that October day in 1914, Stockholm was enveloped by barely noticeable drizzle. His luggage had been brought by handcart from Wallingatan, over the bridge to Djurgården and the Galärvarv Quay. Although there were just the two of them, the porter and himself, he felt as if he were taking part in a procession.
His suitcases were of brown leather. The specially made, calf-leather bag contained his most precious possession. It was a sounding lead for the advanced measuring of the ocean depths.
The lead was made of brass, manufactured in Manchester in 1701 by Maxwell & Swanson. Their skilled craftsmen made optical and navigational instruments and exported them all over the world. The company had acquired renown and respect when they made the sextants used by Captain Cook on what was to be his final voyage to the Pacific Ocean. Their advertisements claimed that their products were used even by Japanese and Chinese seafarers.
Sometimes when he woke up during the night, filled with a mysterious feeling of unrest, he would get up and fetch his lead. Take it back to bed with him and hold it, pressed tightly to his chest. That usually enabled him to go back to sleep.
The lead breathed. Its breath was white.
The destroyer Svea was built at the Lindholmen shipyard in Gothenburg, and had left the slipway in December 1885. She was due to be taken out of active service in 1914 as she was already out of date, but that sentence had been suspended because the Swedish Navy had not prepared for the Great War. Her life had been saved at the very last second. She was like a working horse that had been spared at the moment of slaughter, and allowed back into the streets again.
Lars Tobiasson-Svartman reminded himself of the most important measurements relevant to the ship. Svea was seventy-five metres long and at the broadest point just aft of amidships she was slightly more than fourteen metres. The heavy artillery comprised two long-range 254-millimetre guns of the M/85 type, made by Maxim-Nordenfelt in London. The medium-range artillery was made up of four 150-millimetre guns, also made in London. In addition there was some light artillery and an unknown number of machine guns.
He continued thinking over what he knew about the vessel he was about to board. The crew comprised 250 regular and conscripted ratings, and twenty-two regular officers. The driving power, currently making the ship throb, came from two horizontal compound engines whose horsepower was generated by six boilers. In trials she had attained a speed of 14.68 knots.
There was one further measurement that interested him. The gap between the bottom of Svea’s keel and the bottom of the Galärvarv Quay was just over two metres.
He turned round and looked down at the quay, as if hoping that his wife might have turned up after all. But there was nothing to be seen apart from a few boys fishing and a drunken man who slumped on to his knees then slowly toppled over.
The gusts from Saltsjön were growing stronger. They were very noticeable on deck next to the gangplank.
He was jolted from his reverie by a first mate who clicked his heels and introduced himself as Anders Höckert. Tobiasson-Svartman responded with a salute, but felt uncomfortable doing so. He shuddered every time he was forced to raise his hand to the peak of his cap. He felt silly, as if he were playing a game he hated.
Höckert showed him to his cabin, which was situated below the port companionway leading up to the bridge and the artillery firing base.
Anders Höckert had a birthmark on the back of his neck, just above his collar.
Tobiasson-Svartman frowned and fixed his eyes on the birthmark. Whenever he saw a mole on somebody’s body he always tried to work out what it resembled. His father, Hugo Svartman, had a group of moles high up on his left arm. He imagined them to be an archipelago of small, anonymous islands, rocks and skerries. His white skin formed the navigable channels that combined and crisscrossed one another. Where were the deepest channels on his father’s left arm? Which would be the safest route for a vessel to take?
The secret affinity with leads, measurements and distances characteristic of his life was based on that image and the memory of his father’s birthmarks.
Lars Tobiasson-Svartman thought to himself: Deep down inside me I am still searching for unknown shallows, another unsounded depth, unexpected troughs. Even inside myself I need to chart and mark out a safely navigable channel.
Anders Höckert’s birthmark on the back of his neck, he decided, resembled a wild beast, ready to charge, horns lowered.
Höckert opened the door to the cabin Tobiasson-Svartman had been allocated. He was on a secret mission and hence could not share a cabin with another of the ship’s officers.
His luggage, the rolled-up charts and the brown bag containing his depth-sounding instrument were already stacked on the floor. Höckert saluted and left the cabin.
Tobiasson-Svartman sat down on his bunk and let the solitude envelop him. The engines were throbbing as the boilers were never shut down completely even when the vessel was in dock. He looked out of the porthole. The sky had turned blue, the drizzle had lifted. That cheered him up, or perhaps made him feel relieved. Rain tended to depress him, like small, almost invisible weights beating against his body.
For a moment he felt an urge to abandon ship.
But he did not move.
Then slowly he began to unpack his bags. His wife had carefully chosen every item of clothing for him. She knew what he liked best and would want to have with him. Each one was lovingly folded.
Even so, it seemed to him that he had never seen them before, never mind held them in his hands.
The destroyer Svea left Galärvarv Quay at 18.15 that same evening. At midnight, they emerged from the Stockholm archipelago and headed south-south-east and raised their speed to twelve knots. The north wind was squally, eight to twelve metres per second.
That night Lars Tobiasson-Svartman clung tightly to his lead. He lay awake for hours, thinking about his wife and her fragrant skin. Occasionally he also thought about the mission that lay ahead.
At dawn, after a night’s fitful sleep riddled with vague and elusive dreams, he left his cabin and went on deck. He found a place on the lee side, where he knew he could not be seen from the bridge.
One of his secrets was hidden in a rolled-up chart in his cabin. That is where he kept the designs for the destroyer Svea. The vessel had been constructed by master shipbuilder Göthe Wilhelm Svenson at the Lindholmen yard. After his time as an engineer at the Royal Naval Engineering Establishment in 1868, Svenson carved out an astonishing career for himself as a shipbuilder. In 1881, at the age of fifty-three, he had been appointed Director-in-Chief of the Royal Naval Engineering Establishment.
The very day Tobiasson-Svartman had been told that Svea would be the base for his secret mission, he wrote to Svenson and asked for a copy of the construction designs. He gave as justification his ‘inveterate and perhaps somewhat ridiculous interest in collecting designs of naval vessels’. He was prepared to pay one thousand kronor for the drawings.
Three days later a courier arrived from Gothenburg. The man who handed over the plans was a clerk by the name of Tånge. He had put on his best suit. Tobiasson-Svartman assumed it was Svenson who had instructed him to be elegantly dressed.
Tobiasson-Svartman had not doubted for a second that the drawings would be for sale. A thousand kronor was a lot of money, even for a successful engineer like Göthe Wilhelm Svenson.
He clung to the ladder, trying to follow the rolling of the ship with his body. He recalled the evening he had spent in his living room in Wallingatan, poring over the drawings. That was when his journey had effectively begun.
It was the end of July, the heat was oppressive and everybody was waiting for the outbreak of the war, which now seemed inevitable. The only question was when the first shots would be fired and by whom, at whom. Newspaper offices filled their windows with highly charged reports. Rumours were started and spread, only to be denied immediately; nobody knew anything for certain, but everyone was convinced that they alone had drawn the correct conclusions.
A succession of invisible telegrams flew back and forth across Europe, between kaisers, generals and ministers. The messages were like a stray but deadly flock of birds.
On his desk was a newspaper cutting with a photograph of the German strike-cruiser Goeben. The 23,000-tonne vessel was the most handsome yet most frightening ship he had ever set eyes on.
His wife came into the room and stroked him gently on the shoulder.
‘It’s getting late. What are you doing that’s so important?’
‘I’m studying the ship I shall have to join soon. When it’s time for my mystery voyage.’
She was still stroking his shoulder.
‘Mystery voyage? Surely you can tell me where you’re going?’
‘No. I can’t tell even you.’
Her fingers caressed his shoulder. Her hand barely touched his shirt, yet he could feel her movements deep down inside him.
‘What do all those lines and figures mean? I can’t even see that they represent a ship.’
‘I like being able to see what is not seeable.’
‘Meaning what?’
‘The idea. What lies behind it all. The will, perhaps? The intention? I’m not sure. But there’s always something there that you cannot see at first.’
She sighed impatiently. She stopped stroking his shoulder and instead started tapping anxiously at his collarbone. He tried to work out if she were sending him a message.
In the end she took her hand away. He imagined it was a bird taking flight.
I am not telling her the truth, he thought. I am keeping from her what I am really doing. Not admitting that I am studying the plans in order to find a point on deck where nobody could see me from the bridge.
What I am really doing is searching for a hiding place.
He gazed out to sea.
Ragged shreds of mist, a solitary line of seabirds.
Recalling memories involved meticulous care and patience. What happened afterwards, that evening in July, just before war was declared? Those oppressively hot days and the millions of young men all over Europe hastily called up?
After studying the drawings for nearly an hour he had found the spot where his hiding place would be.
He pushed the plans aside. From the street outside he could hear the neighing of a restless dray horse. In another room of their large flat Kristina was rearranging the china figurines she had inherited from her mother. There was a clinking noise, as if from muffled bells. Although they had been married for ten years and scarcely an evening went by without her rearranging the figurines on the shelves, not a single one had ever fallen and shattered.
But afterwards? What happened then? He could not remember. It was as if a leak had sprung in the flow of memories. Something had seeped away.
It had been a windless July evening, the temperature twenty-seven degrees. Occasional rumbles of thunder had drifted in from the Lidingö direction, where dark clouds were gathering from the sea.
He thought about those clouds. He was troubled by the fact that he found it easier to recall the shape of clouds than his wife’s face.
He brushed such thoughts aside and gazed into the dawn. What exactly can I see? he thought. Dark rocky outlines early on a Swedish autumn morning. At some point during the night the duty officer had ordered a change of course to a more southerly direction. Their speed was about seven, possibly eight knots.
Five knots is peace, he thought. Seven knots is a suitable speed when you are being sent out on a secret and urgent mission. And 27.8 knots means war. That is the highest speed achieved by the Goeben, although her steam engines were rumoured to have a construction fault causing severe leakages.
It struck him that you can predetermine the moment when a war starts, but never when it will finish.
On the starboard side, where he stood concealed by the companionway, the shoreline could just be made out in the dawn light. Rocks and skerries rose and fell in the choppy sea.
This is where a land starts and ends, Tobiasson-Svartman thought. But the boundary keeps shifting, there is no precise point where the sea comes to an end and land begins. The rocks are barely visible above the water. In olden days seafarers used to regard these rocks and reefs and outcrops as peculiar and terrifying sea monsters. I can also imagine the rocks slowly climbing up out of the sea becoming animals, but they do not terrify me. For me, they are no more than thought-provoking but perfectly harmless hippos rearing up among the waves, of a kind found only in the Baltic Sea.
This is where a land starts and ends, he thought once more. A rock leisurely straightening its back. A rock by the name of Sweden.
He walked to the rail and peered into the blue-grey water rushing along the hull of the destroyer. The sea never gives way, he thought. The sea never sells its skin. In the winter this sea is like frozen skin. Autumn is all calm, waiting. With sudden gusts of howling gales. Summer is no more than a brief glint in the mirror-calm water.
The sea, the elevation of the land, all these incomprehensible phenomena, they are like the slow progress from childhood to adulthood and death. An elevation of the land takes place inside every human being. All our memories come from the sea.
The sea is a dream that never sells its skin.
He smiled. My wife does not want me to see her crying. Perhaps that is for the same reasons, whatever they are, that I do not want her to see who I am when I am alone with the sea?
He returned to his sheltered spot. A freezing cold sailor emptied a bucket of waste food over the stern. Seagulls were following in the wake of the ship like a watchful rearguard. The deck was deserted again. He continued to contemplate the rocks. It was getting lighter.
These reefs and rocks are not only animals, he thought. They are also stones that are breaking free from the sea. There is no such thing as freedom without effort. But these stones are also time. Stones rising slowly out of the sea, which never lets go of them.
He tried to work out where they were. It was eleven hours since they had left Stockholm. He estimated the speed again and adjusted his previous conclusion to nine knots. They must be somewhere in the northern östergötland archipelago, south of Landsort, north of the Häradskär lighthouse, to the south or east of Fällbådarna.
He went back to his cabin. Apart from the rating on deck he had not set eyes on a single member of the ship’s large crew. Nobody could very well have seen him either, nor his hiding place.
He closed his cabin door and sat down on his bunk. In half an hour he would take breakfast in the officers’ mess. At half past nine he was due to meet the ship’s captain in his quarters. Captain Hans Rake would hand over the secret instructions presently locked in the ship’s safe.
He wondered why he so seldom laughed.
What was he missing? Why did he so often think he must be fashioned out of faulty clay?
He sat on the edge of his bunk and let his eyes wander slowly around the cabin.
It was three metres square, like a prison cell with a round, brass-framed porthole. On the deck immediately below it was a corridor linking the various sections of the vessel. According to the plans, which he had memorised in minute detail, there were also two watertight, vertical bulkheads to the left of his cabin but two metres lower down in the ship. Above his head was the companionway leading to the starboard midships gun.
He thought: The cabin is a point. I am in the middle of that point at this very moment. One of these days there will be measuring instruments so precise that it will be possible to establish the exact location of this cabin in terms of latitude and longitude at any given moment. Its position will be capable of being fixed on a map of the world down to a fraction of a second. When that happens there will no longer be a place for gods. Who needs a god when the precise location of every human being can be established, when a person’s inner location will coincide exactly with his external location? People making a living out of speculating about superstition and religion will have to find something else to live off. Charlatans and hydrographic engineers stand irrevocably on different sides of the crucial dividing line. Not the date line or the prime meridian line, but the line that separates the measurable from what cannot be measured and hence doesn’t exist.
He gave a start. Something in that thought confused him. But he could not put his finger on what it was.
He took his shaving mirror from the sponge bag Kristina Tacker had embroidered with his initials and a childishly formed rose.
Each time he looked at his reflection he took a deep breath. As if he were preparing himself for descending into a chasm. He imagined being confronted by a face he did not recognise in the mirror.
He always felt a strong sense of relief to encounter those eyes, his furrowed brow and the scar over his left eye.
He examined his face and thought about who he was. A man who had made his career in the Swedish Navy, whose ambition was one day to become chiefly responsible for mapping the secret naval channels that were a key part of the Swedish defences.
Was he anything more?
A person who constantly measured distances and depths, both in external reality and in the oceans inside him that were as yet uncharted.
He stroked his cheeks and replaced the mirror in his sponge bag. He was also a man who had changed his surname. His father had died at the beginning of March 1912. A few weeks before the Olympic Games were due to be opened in the newly built stadium in Stockholm, he applied to the Royal Patents and Registrations Office with a request to change his name. To distance himself from his dead father, he had decided to insert his mother’s maiden name between his Christian name and his surname, Svartman. His mother had always tried to protect him from his moody and perpetually irascible father. His father was dead now, but dead people can also be a threat. The protective wall his mother had thrown up would be extended into his name.
He put away his sponge bag and opened the lid of a wooden box he had placed on the low table with raised edges to stop items falling off in stormy seas. It contained four watches. Three of them showed exactly the same time. They were a check on one another. The hands on the fourth, which he had inherited from his father, were still. In that one, time had stopped.
He closed the lid again. Three of the watches told him the time, the fourth represented death.
Three officers got to their feet and eyed him with interest as he entered the mess. He recognised one of them, the short-sighted first mate who had welcomed him by the gangplank the previous evening. Höckert introduced his two colleagues.
‘May I introduce you to Lieutenant Sundfeldt and Artillery Captain von Sidenbahn?’
The latter was tall and slim, and smelled strongly of either aftershave or gin.
‘No doubt you are wondering what an artillery captain is doing on board a ship,’ he said. ‘We are usually more at home and more effective on dry land, but sometimes an artillery captain can be of use on board a warship. Especially when guns have to be broken in and adjusted and there is a shortage of officers.’
They sat down. A waiter served coffee. Nobody asked any questions. Captain Rake had naturally informed his officers that they would be accompanied on their voyage to the outer edge of the östergötland archipelago by an officer on a secret mission.
Sundfeldt and von Sidenbahn left the mess.
‘Have you met the ship’s captain yet?’ said Höckert.
He spoke with a pronounced accent, possibly a Småland dialect, or perhaps he came from Halland or Bohuslän.
‘No,’ said Tobiasson-Svartman. ‘I know Captain Rake only by reputation so far.’
‘Reputations are generally misleading or exaggerated. But there is always a grain of truth in what is said. The truth about Rake is that he’s very competent. Possibly a bit on the lazy side, but aren’t we all?’
Höckert stood up, clicked his heels and gave an apology of a salute. Tobiasson-Svartman finished his breakfast alone. He could hear Lieutenant Sundfeldt’s angry tones from the deck, but could not make out what had upset him.
It was broad daylight by now. Captain Rake would be waiting for him, preparing to produce the secret orders from the ship’s safe.
The Svea was heading south. The wind was still squalling and appeared to be veering in different directions. Towards the shore it had started raining again.
The meeting between Captain Rake and Lars Tobiasson-Svartman was interrupted by an unexpected incident. They had just shaken hands and sat down in the leather chairs fixed to the floor of Rake’s suite when Lieutenant Sundfeldt marched in and announced that one of the crew had fallen ill. He could not judge if the man’s state was life-threatening, but he was in a lot of pain.
‘Nobody can simulate such fearful pain,’ said Lieutenant Sundfeldt.
Rake said nothing for a moment, staring at his hands. He was known to be a man who backed his crew to the hilt, and so Tobiasson-Svartman was not surprised when Rake rose to his feet.
‘The unfortunate fact is that our ship’s doctor, Hallman, has been given leave to attend his daughter’s wedding. I’m afraid we shall have to postpone our meeting.’
‘Of course.’
Rake was about to leave when he paused and turned.
‘Why not come along as well?’ he said. ‘Taking a look at a sick crewman is an excellent way of having a look round the ship. Who is he?’
The question was directed at Lieutenant Sundfeldt.
‘Johan Jakob Rudin. Bosun. Permanent crew member.’
Rake racked his brain.
‘The Rudin who signed on in August, in Kalmar?’
‘That’s the one.’
‘What is he suffering from?’
‘Stomach pains.’
Rake nodded.
‘My bosuns don’t complain without good cause.’
They walked down a narrow corridor then up a companionway and on to the deck. The cold, squally wind made them crouch down. Lieutenant Sundfeldt took the lead, followed by Captain Rake, with Tobiasson-Svartman bringing up the rear.
Once more he had the feeling he was taking part in a procession.
‘I have been in command of naval ships for nineteen years,’ said Rake. He was shouting, to make himself heard above the wind. ‘So far I’ve only lost four crew members,’ he went on. ‘Two died of a raging fever before we could get them to land, an engineer fell backwards off a companionway and broke his neck. I still believe the man was drunk, although it couldn’t be proved. Then I once had a mentally ill petty officer who threw himself overboard just off the Grundkallen lighthouse. There was something shameful behind the catastrophe, debts and forged bonds. I suppose I ought to have seen it coming, but it’s generally hard to stop a sailor who has really made up his mind to jump. Of course, we always carry a ship’s doctor – but this trip is an exception. It also has to be said that naval doctors are seldom the most competent ones around.’
Rake paused and was clearly annoyed as he pointed at a bucket standing next to a companionway. Lieutenant Sundfeldt ordered a rating to remove it immediately.
‘I learned a bit about medical diagnosis quite early in my career,’ Rake continued. ‘And I can pull teeth, of course. There are a few very simple ways of keeping folk alive for a bit longer. I console myself, and possibly also flatter myself, that I have significantly fewer deaths on my ships than any of my colleagues.’
They went on down various companionways until they came to the very bottom of the ship. Tobiasson-Svartman could feel that they were down by the waterline. The air was oppressive and the smell of oil stifling.
They continued their way downwards.
The bosun was in his hammock. It smelled stuffy, with a stench of sweat and fear.
It was dark, and Tobiasson-Svartman had difficulty making out details. It was a considerable time before his eyes got used to the transition from light space to darkness.
Rake took off his gloves and leaned over the hammock. Rudin’s face was glistening, his eyes flickering restlessly. He looked like a terrified, cornered animal.
‘Where does it hurt?’ Rake said.
Rudin folded back the blanket to reveal his nightshirt. He pulled it up over his chest. All three men leaned over the hammock. Rudin pointed to a spot to the right of his navel. Moving his hand made him grimace in pain.
‘Has it been hurting for long?’ Rake said.
‘Since yesterday evening. We’d just left Stockholm when it started.’
‘Constant or on and off?’
‘On and off at first, but now all the time.’
‘Have you had anything like this before?’
‘I don’t know.’
‘Think. Think hard.’
Rudin lay still, thinking.
‘No,’ he said eventually. ‘This is something new. I’ve never felt anything like it before.’
Rake lay his slender hand on the area Rudin had indicated. He pressed down, gently at first, then harder. Rudin pulled a face and groaned. Rake took his hand away.
‘I think it’s appendicitis.’
He straightened his back.
‘You need an operation. It’ll be OK.’
Rudin eyed his captain gratefully as he pulled the blanket up to his chin again. Despite lying down and being in pain, he saluted.
They returned to the upper deck. On the way Rake instructed Sundfeldt to tell the wireless operator to contact the Thule, one of the class 1 gunboats the Svea was due to meet east of the Sandsänkan lighthouse.
‘They ought to be heading north, somewhere between Västervik and Häradskär,’ Rake said. ‘The gunboat must come and meet us as quickly as possible, take Rudin on board and transport him to Bråviken. There’s a good hospital in Norrköping. I’ve no intention of losing one of my best bosuns unnecessarily.’
Lieutenant Sundfeldt saluted and made off. They returned to the captain’s quarters without speaking. Rake offered him a cigarette. Tobiasson-Svartman declined. He had tried to start smoking when he embarked on his naval officer training. He was one of only three on the course who did not smoke. But he never managed it. Inhaling the smoke from a cigarette or cigar made him feel as if he were choking, and he was in danger of panicking.
Rake lit his cigar with great attention to detail. All the time he was listening to the vibrations in the ship’s hull. Tobiasson-Svartman had noticed how older, more experienced sea dogs used to do this. They were always on the bridge in spirit, even when they were in their own quarters smoking a cigar. The vibrations were evidently transformed into images so that your experienced sailor always knew exactly what was what.
Then they talked about the war.
Rake told how the British Fleet had left Scapa Flow as early as 27 July, in great haste and a certain degree of disarray, even though war had not yet been declared. The Admiralty had made it clear they had no intention of allowing the German blue-water fleet the least opportunity to attack British warships trapped in their bases. The periscopes of German submarines had been spotted by the crews of British fishing boats at dawn on 27 July. Trawlers on the way through the Pentland Firth to Dogger Bank further out in the North Sea had sighted at least three submarines.
Tobiasson-Svartman could see the charts in his mind’s eye. He had an almost photographic memory where sea charts were concerned. Scapa Flow, Pentland Firth, the British naval bases in the Orkney Islands: he could even recall the crucial details of depth soundings in the entry channels to the natural harbours.
‘It’s possible that the British Fleet is in for a surprise,’ Rake said thoughtfully.
Tobiasson-Svartman waited for more, but nothing more came.
‘What kind of a surprise?’ he asked after measuring out an appropriate silence.
‘That the German Navy is much better equipped than the arrogant English imagine.’
Rake’s words carried a clear implication. Sweden was not yet involved in the war. The Swedish Navy was preparing itself for circumstances in which that would no longer be the case. If that did happen, there should be no doubt as to where the sympathy of the Swedish military lay. Even if the government and parliament had declared their country’s neutrality.
The conversation died out.
Rake put down his cigar on a heavy green porphyry ashtray, stood up, produced a key attached to his watch chain, then knelt down in front of the large black safe screwed to the floor.
The secret instructions were in a plain, cloth-bound folder, tied with a thick blue-and-yellow silk ribbon. Rake handed over the folder, then returned to his cigar.
Tobiasson-Svartman opened the folder. Although he knew the general objective of his mission, he was not aware of the more detailed plans that had been drawn up by Naval Headquarters. He sat back comfortably in his chair, balanced the folder on his knee and started reading.
In the corner of his eye he could see Rake studying the course of the smoke from his cigar.
The ship was throbbing like a panting beast.
Tobiasson-Svartman often compared various types of ship with animals to be found in Sweden. Torpedo boats were like weasels or polecats, destroyers were falcons eager to pounce on their prey, cruisers hunted like packs of hungry wolves, the big battleships were solitary bears that did not like to be disturbed. Animals that were normally enemies could be persuaded, in their symbolic roles as warships, to cooperate and even to sacrifice themselves for one another.
He saw from the folder that the instructions were Confidential and for the Eyes of Commander Lars Svartman Only. Certain sections could be copied, but the original was to be handed back to Rake without ever having left his cabin.
As far as the Swedish Navy was concerned, his name had not been changed, despite the fact that he had informed his superiors the moment he heard from the Royal Patents and Registrations Office.
On board this vessel and as far as the Joint Staff of the Swedish Armed Forces was concerned, he was still Lars Svartman, that was all.
He read:
Your mission is to make depth soundings, without delay, of the dedicated and secret naval channels linking Kalmar Sound, southern section, with the northern, central and southern approaches to Stockholm. It is especially important to check the readings of the sounds, passages and other approaches made in 1898 and 1902 in relation to the deepest possible draught claimed for each type of vessel at Sandsänkan Lighthouse. Your base for these soundings will be the destroyer Svea. The vessel you will use for making the soundings will be the gunboat Blenda, which will supply the necessary launches and picket boats.
This introductory statement was followed by all the associated specific orders that were to be complied with.
He closed the file and retied the silk ribbon. Rake eyed him up and down.
‘No notes?’
‘I don’t think I need any.’
‘You are still young,’ said Rake with a smile. ‘Old men never rely on their memories. Young men sometimes rely on theirs too much.’
Tobiasson-Svartman stood up and clicked his heels. It felt as if he were giving himself a kick. Rake pointed to the table, indicating where the file should go.
‘It’s going to be a long war,’ Rake said. ‘Lord Kitchener in the British high command has realised that. I’m afraid his German equivalent hasn’t yet grasped that this war is going to be on a bigger scale than any previous one throughout the awful history of mankind.’
Rake paused, as if his thoughts had become too overwhelming for him to bear. Then he went on.
‘Thousands of men are going to die. Hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions. In that respect this war is going to be bigger than any previous one. And it’s going to be long and drawn-out. There are some who say it will be all over by Christmas. Personally, I’m convinced it will last for years. More ships are going to be sunk than in any other. The tonnage that’s going to be blown up and sunk will have to be totted up in millions.’
Rake paused again. He fiddled absent-mindedly with the blue-and-yellow silk ribbon.
More people are going to be drowned than ever before, thought Tobiasson-Svartman. Officers and men will be burned to death in blazing infernos. The Baltic Sea and the North Sea, the Atlantic and perhaps other oceans as well will be filled with screams that slowly grow fainter and then cease altogether.
A thousand sailors weigh about sixty tonnes. War is not only about how many sailors die. It is also about how many living tonnes are transformed into dead tonnes. You talk about the deadweight of a vessel. Human beings can be reckoned in terms of deadweight as well.
He left the captain’s cabin.
Jagged clouds were scudding across the October sky. He thought about the task ahead of him. He also wondered whether Rake was right. Would the war really be as terrible and long-drawn-out as he had predicted?
The ship suddenly lost speed and turned slowly so as to head into the wind. He realised this must be a heave-to manoeuvre in preparation for transferring Rudin on to the gunboat that would take him to Norrköping.
He went back to his cabin. He hung up his tunic, removed his shoes and stretched out on his bunk. Somebody had made up the bed while he had been with Rake.
He lay with his hands behind his head, feeling the vibrations that were throbbing through the ship, and thought about what was in store.
It was a sort of ritual.