Gray Crimson sails

Gray Crimson sails

If Caesar considered that it was better to be the first in a village than the second in Rome, Arthur Gray did not have to envy Caesar as far as his sagacious wish was concerned. He was born a captain, desired to be one, and became one.

The great manor in which Gray was born was sombre inside and magnificent without. The manor looked on flower gardens and a part of the park. The very best imaginable tulips - silver-blue, lavender and black with a brush of pink - snaked through the garden like strings of carelessly-strewn beads. The old trees in the park slumbered in the sifting gloom above the sedge of a meandering stream. The castle fence, for the manor was actually a castle, was made of spiral cast-iron posts connected by iron grillwork. Each post was crowned by a cast-iron lily blossom; on festive occasions the cups were filled with oil and burned brightly into the night as a far-stretching, fiery line.

Gray's parents were arrogant slaves of their social position, wealth and the laws of that society, referring to which they could say "we". The part of their souls that was centred on the gallery of their ancestors is not really worth describing, while the other part-an imaginary continuation of the gallery-began with little Gray, who was preordained to live out his life and die in such a manner as to have his portrait hung on the wall without detriment to the family honour. A small error had crept into the plan, however: Arthur Gray was born with a lively spirit, and was in no way disposed to continue the line of the family tracing.

This liveliness, this complete unorthodoxy in the boy became most evident in his eighth year; a knightly type affected by strange impressions, a seeker and miracle worker, that is, a person who had chosen from amongst the countless roles in life the most dangerous and touching one-the role of

Providence, became apparent in Gray from the time he pushed a chair up against the wall to reach a painting of the Crucifixion and removed the nails from Christ's bloody hands, that is, he simply covered them over with blue paint he had stolen from a house painter. Thus altered, he found the painting to be more bearable. Carried away by this strange occupation, he had begun covering over Christ's feet as well, but was surprised by his father. The old man jerked the boy off the chair by his ears and asked:

"Why have you ruined the painting?"

"I haven't ruined it."

"It is the work of a famous painter."

"I don't care. I can't allow nails to be sticking out of someone's hands, making them bleed. I don't want it to be."

Hiding his smile in his moustache, Lionel Gray recognized himself in his son's reply and did not punish him.

Gray diligently went about studying the castle, and his discoveries were amazing. Thus, in the attic he came upon a knight's steel armour-junk, books bound in iron and leather, crumbling vestments and flocks of pigeons.

In the cellar, where the wine was kept, he gleaned interesting information about Laffitte, Madeira and sherry. Here in the murky light of the lancet windows that were squeezed in between the slanting triangles of the stone vaults there were large and small casks; the largest, in the shape of a flat circle, took up all of the shorter wall of the cellar; the hundred-year-old black oak of the cask gleamed like highly-polished wood. Paunchy green and dark-blue bottles rested in wicker baskets among the casks. Grey fungi' on spindly stalks grew on the stones and on the earthen floor;

everywhere-there was mould, moss dampness and a sour, stuffy smell. A great cobweb glittered like gold in a far corner when, towards evening, the sun's last ray searched it out. Two casks of the finest Alicant that existed in the days of Cromwell were sunk into the ground in one spot, and the cellar-keeper, pointing out a vacant corner to Gray, did not miss the chance to recount the story of the famous grave in which lay a dead man more live than a pack of fox terriers. As he began his tale, the story-teller would never forget to check on the spigot of the large cask and would walk away from it apparently with an easier heart, since unwonted tears of too-strong joy glistened in his suddenly merry eyes.

"Now then," Poldichoque would say to Gray, sitting down on an empty crate and putting a pinch of snuff up his sharp nose, "do you see that spot?

The kind of wine that's buried there would make many a drunkard agree to having his tongue cut off if he'd be given just a little glass of it. Each cask holds a hundred litres of a substance that makes your soul explode and your body turn into a blob of dough. It's darker than a cherry, and it won't pour out of a bottle. It's as thick as heavy cream. It's locked away in casks of black oak that're as strong as iron. They have double rows of copper hoops. And the lettering on the hoops is in Latin and says, 'A Gray will drink me when he'll be in Heaven.' There were so many opinions as to what it means that your greatgrandfather, Simeon Gray, had a country estate built and named it 'Heaven' and thought in that way he could reconcile the mysterious inscription and reality by means of some harmless wit. And what do you know? He died of a heart attack as soon as the first hoops were knocked off. That's how excited the old gourmet was. Ever since then nobody's as much as touched the cask. They say the precious wine will bring misfortune. Indeed, not even the Egyptian Sphinx asked such riddles. True, it did ask a sage: 'Will I devour you like I devour everyone else? Tell me the truth, and you'll live', but only after giving it some concerted thought...."

"I think the spigot's leaking again," Poldichoque would say, interrupting himself, and would head at a slant towards the corner from whence, having tightened the spigot, he would return with a bland, beaming face. "Yes. After giving it some thought and, most important, taking his time about it, the sage might have said to the Sphinx: 'Let's go and have a drink, my good fellow, and you'll forget all about such nonsense.' 'A Gray will drink me when he's in Heaven!' How's one to understand that? Does it mean he'll drink it after he's dead? That's very strange. Which means he's a saint, which means he doesn't drink either wine or spirits. Let's say that

'Heaven' means happiness. But if the question is posed like that, any joy will lose half of its shiny leathers when the happy fellow has to ask himself sincerely: is this Heaven? That's the rub. In order to drink from this cask with an easy heart and laugh, my boy, really laugh, one has to have one foot on the ground and the other in the sky. There's also a third theory: that one day a Gray will get heavenly drunk and will brazenly empty the little cask. However, this, my boy, would not be carrying out the prophesy, it would be a tavern row."

Having checked once again on the working order of the spigot in the big cask, Poldichoque ended his story looking glum and intent:

"Your ancestor, John Gray, brought these casks over from Lisbon on the

Beagle in 1793; he paid two thousand gold piasters for the wine. The gunsmith Benjamin Ellian from Pondisherry did the inscription on the casks.

The casks are sunk six feet underground and covered with the ashes of grape vines. No one ever drank this wine, tasted it, or ever will."

"I'll drink it," Gray said one day, stamping his foot. "What a brave young man!" Poldichoque said. "And will you drink it in Heaven?"

"Of course! Here's Heaven! It's here, see?" Gray laughed softly and opened his small fist. His delicate but well-formed palm was lit up by the sun, and then the boy curled his fingers into a fist again. "Here it is!

It's here, and now it's gone again!"

As he spoke he kept clenching and unclenching his fist. At last, pleased with his joke, he ran out, ahead of Poldichoque, onto the dark stairway leading to the ground floor corridor. Gray was absolutely forbidden to enter the kitchen, but once, having discovered this wonderful world of flaming hearths and soot, this hissing and bubbling of boiling liquids, chopping of knives and mouth-watering smells, the boy became a diligent visitor to the great chamber. The chefs moved in stony silence like some high priests; their white hats etched against the soot-blackened walls lent an air of solemn ritual to their movements; the fat, jovial dishwashers at their barrels of water scrubbed the tableware, making the china and silver ring; boys came in, bent under the weight of baskets of fish, oysters, lobsters and fruit. Laid out on a long table were rainbow-hued pheasants, grey ducks and brightly-feathered chickens; farther on was the carcass of a suckling pig with a tiny tail and eyes shut like a babe's; then there were turnips, cabbages, nuts, raisins and sun-burnished peaches.

Gray always quailed slightly in the kitchen: he felt that some strange force was in charge here, and that its power was the mainspring of life in the castle; the shouts sounded like orders and invocations; the movements of the kitchen staff after years of practice had acquired that precise, measured rhythm that seems like inspiration. Gray was not yet tall enough to peep into the largest cauldron which bubbled like Mt. Vesuvius, but he felt a special respect for it; he watched in awe as two serving women handled it;

at such times steaming froth would splash out onto the top of the stove, and the steam that rose from the hissing stove lid would billow out into the kitchen. On one occasion so much liquid splashed out it scalded one of the kitchen maid's hands. The skin immediately turned red from the rush of blood, and Betsy (for that was her name) wept as she rubbed oil into the burned skin. Tears coursed down her round, frightened face uncontrollably.

Gray was petrified. As the other women fussed about Betsy, he was suddenly gripped by the pain of another person's suffering which he could not himself experience.

"Does it hurt very much?" he asked.

"Try it, and you'll see," Betsy replied, covering her hand with her apron.

The boy frowned and climbed up onto a stool, dipped a long-handled spoon into the hot liquid (in this case it was lamb soup) and splashed some onto his wrist. The sensation was not faint, but the faintness resulting from the sharp pain made him sway. He was as pale as flour when he went up to Betsy, hiding his scalded hand in his pants pocket.

"I think it hurts you awfully," he murmured, saying nothing of his own experiment. "Come to the doctor, Betsy. Come on!"

He tugged at her skirt insistently, though all the while the believers in home remedies were giving the girl all sorts of advice for treating the burn. However, she was in very great pain, and so she followed Gray. The doctor relieved her pain by applying some medication. Not before Betsy was gone did Gray show him his own hand.

This insignificant episode made twenty-year-old Betsy and ten-year-old

Gray bosom friends. She would fill his pockets with sweets and apples, and he would tell her fairy-tales and other stories he had read in his books.

One day he discovered that Betsy could not marry Jim, the groom, because they had no money to set themselves up in a home of their own. Gray used his fireplace tongs to crack his china piggy-bank and shook out the contents, which amounted to nearly a hundred pounds. He rose early, and when the dowerless girl went off to the kitchen, sneaked into her room and placed his gift in her chest, laying a note on top: "This is yours, Betsy. (Signed)

Robin Hood." The commotion this caused in the kitchen was so great that Gray had to confess to the deed. He did not take the money back and did not want to have another word said about it.

His mother was one of those people whom life pours into a ready mould.

She lived in the dream-world of prosperity that provided for every wish of an ordinary soul; therefore, she had no other occupation save to order around her dressmakers, doctor and butler. However, her passionate and ail-but religious attachment for her strange child was, one might assume, the only vent for those of her inclinations, chloroformed by her upbringing and fate, which were no longer fully alive, but simmered faintly, leaving the will idle. The high-born dame resembled a peacock hen that had hatched a swan's egg. She was quiveringly aware of the magnificent uniqueness of her son; sadness, love and constraint filled her being when she pressed the boy to her breast, and her heart spoke unlike her tongue, which habitually reflected the conventional types of relationships and ideas. Thus does a cloud effect, concocted so weirdly by the sun's rays, penetrate the symmetrical interior of a public building, divesting it of its banal merits;

the eye sees but does not recognize the chamber; the mysterious nuances of light amongst paltriness create a dazzling harmony.

The high-born dame, whose face and figure, it seemed, could respond but in icy silence to the fiery voices of life and whose delicate beauty repelled rather than attracted, since one sensed her haughty effort of will, devoid of feminine attraction - this same Lillian Gray, when alone with the boy, was transformed into an ordinary mother speaking in a loving, gentle voice those endearments which refuse to be committed to paper; their power lies in the emotions, not in their meaning. She was positively unable to refuse her son anything. She forgave him everything: his visits to the kitchen, his abhorrence of his lessons, his disobedience and his many eccentricities.

If he did not want the trees to be trimmed they were left untouched; if he asked that someone be pardoned or rewarded - the person in question knew that it would be so; he could ride any horse he wished, bring any dog he wished into the castle, go through the books in the library, run around barefoot and eat whatever he pleased.

His father tried to put a stop to this and finally yielded - not to the principle, but to his wife's wishes. He merely had all the servants'

children moved out of the castle, fearing that by associating with low society the boy's whims would become inclinations that would be difficult to eradicate. In general, he was completely taken up with endless family lawsuits whose origins went back to the era of the founding of the first paper mills and whose end perhaps lay in the death of the last caviller.

Besides, there were affairs of state, the running of his own estates, dictating his memoirs, fox-hunts, newspapers to be read and an extended correspondence to keep him at a certain distance inwardly from the rest of the family; he saw his son so infrequently that he would sometimes forget how old the boy was.

Thus, Gray lived in a world of his own. He played all by himself-usually in the back yards of the castle which had once, in times of yore, been of strategic use. These vast, empty lots with the remains of deep moats and moss-covered stone cellars were overgrown with weeds, nettles, briars, blackthorn and shy bright wildflowers. Gray would spend hours here, exploring mole burrows, battling weeds, stalking butterflies and building fortresses of broken bricks, which he then shelled with sticks and stones.

He was going on twelve when all the implications of his soul, all the separate traits of his spirit and shades of secret impulses were brought together in a single powerful surge and, having in this way acquired a harmonious expression, became an indomitable desire. Until then he seemed to have found but disparate parts of his garden-a sunny spot, shadow, a flower, a great dark trunk-in the many other gardens and suddenly saw them clearly, all - in magnificent, astonishing accord.

This happened in the library. The tall door topped by a murky fanlight was usually locked, but the latch fit the mortise loosely and when pressed hard, the door would give, buckle and open. When the spirit of adventure urged Gray to make his way into the library he was amazed at the dusty light, whose effect and peculiarity were created by the coloured design of the leaded fanlight. The stillness of desertion lay upon everything here as on water in a pond. Here and there dark rows of bookcases adjoined the windows, blocking them halfway; there were aisles between the bookcases which were piled high with volumes. Here was an open album from which the centre pages had slipped out; over there were some scrolls tied with gold cord, stacks of sombre-looking books, thick layers of manuscripts, a mound of miniature volumes which cracked like bark if they were opened; here were charts and tables, rows of new editions, maps; a great variety of bindings, coarse, fine, black, mottled, blue, grey, thick, thin, rough and smooth. The bookcases were packed with books. They seemed like walls which had encompassed life itself within their bulk. The glass of the bookcases reflected other bookcases covered with colourless, shimmering spots. On a round table was a huge globe encased by a brass spherical cross formed by the equator and a meridian.

Turning to the exit, Gray saw a huge painting above the door whose images immediately filled the rigid silence of the library. The painting was of a clipper rising upon the crest of a tremendous wave. Foam coursed down its side. It was depicted at the very last moment of its upward flight. The ship was sailing straight at the viewer. The rearing bowsprit obscured the base of the masts. The crest of the great wave, rent by the keel, resembled the wings of a huge bird. Foam streaked off into the air. The sails, but vaguely discernible behind the forecastle deck and above the bowsprit, swollen by the raging force of the storm, were bearing back in their enormity, in order to, having gained the crest, righten themselves and then, tilting over the void, speed the vessel on towards new billows. Low, ragged clouds swirled over the ocean. The dim light struggled vainly against the approaching darkness of night. However, the most striking aspect of the painting was the figure of a man standing on the forecastle deck with his back to the viewer. It fully conveyed the situation and even the nature of the moment. The man's pose (he had spread his legs far apart and flung out his arms) did not actually indicate what he was doing, but led one to assume attention strained to the extreme and directed towards something on deck invisible to the viewer. The hem of his coat was whipped back by the wind;

his white pigtail and black sword were swept straight out into the air; the richness of his dress indicated him to be the captain; his dancing stance -

the sweep of the wave; there was no hat; he was, apparently, completely absorbed by the dangerous moment and was shouting-but what? Did he see a man falling overboard, was he issuing an order to tack about or, shouting above the wind, was he calling to the boatswain? The shadows of these thoughts, not the thoughts themselves, took shape in Gray's heart as he gazed at the painting. He suddenly felt that someone had approached him from the left and now stood beside him, unknown and unseen; he had only to turn his head to make the weird sensation disappear without a trace. Gray knew this. However, he did not snuff out his imagination, but harkened to it. A

soundless voice shouted several curt phrases, as incomprehensible as if spoken in Malay; there followed the crash of extended avalanches; echoes and a grim wind filled the library. Gray heard all this within himself. He looked around; the stillness that was instantly re-established dispelled the ringing cobweb of his fantasy; his bond with the storm was broken.

Gray returned several times to look at the painting. It became to him that necessary word in the conversation between the soul and life without which it is difficult to understand one's self. The great sea was gradually finding a place within the small boy. He became accustomed to it as he went through the books in the library, seeking out and avidly reading those behind whose golden door the blue glitter of the ocean could be seen. There, sowing spray behind the stern, the ships plied on. Some lost their sails and masts and, becoming engulfed by the waves, settled into the deep, where in the darkness gleam the phosphorescent eyes of fishes. Others, seized by the breakers, were battered against the reefs; the subsiding swell shook the hull dangerously; the deserted ship with its torn rigging was in protracted agony until a new storm shattered it to bits. Still others took on cargo uneventfully in one port and unloaded it in another; the crew, gathered around a tavern table, would sing the praises of a life at sea and down their drinks lovingly. There were also pirate ships that flew the Jolly

Roger, manned by terrible, cutlass-swinging crews; there were phantom ships radiant in a deathly glow of blue illumination; there were naval ships with soldiers, cannons and brass bands; there were the ships of scientific expeditions, studying volcanoes, flora and fauna; there were ships enveloped in grim mystery and mutiny; there were ships of discovery and ships of adventure.

In this world, most naturally, the figure of the captain towered above all else. He was the fate, the soul and the brain of the ship. His character determined the work and the leisure of the crew. He selected his crew himself and it met his inclinations in many ways. He knew the habits and family life of each man. He possessed, in the eyes of his subordinates, magical knowledge, which enabled him to confidently plot a course from, say,

Lisbon to Shanghai across the vast expanses. He repelled a storm by the counteraction of a system of complex efforts, squelching panic with curt orders; he sailed and stopped where he would; he was in command of the sailing and loading, repairs and leisure; it was difficult to imagine a greater and more sensible authority in a vital enterprise full of constant movement. This power, in its exclu-siveness, and absoluteness, was equal to the power of Orpheus.

This notion of a captain, this image and this actual reality of his position occupied, by right of events of the spirit, the place of honour in

Gray's splendid imagination. No other profession save this could so successfully fuse into a single whole all the treasures of life, while preserving inviolable the most delicate design of each separate joy. Danger, risk, the forces of nature, the light of a distant land, the wondrous unknown, effervescent love, blossoming in rendezvous and parting; the fascinating turmoil of encounters, faces, events; the endless variety of life, while up above in the sky was now the Southern Cross, now the Big

Dipper, and all the continents were in one's keen eyes, though your cabin was replete with your ever-present homeland, with its books, pictures, letters and dried flowers entwined by a silken strand of hair in a suede locket on your manly chest.

In the autumn of his fifteenth year Arthur Gray ran away from home and passed through the golden gates of the sea. Soon after the schooner Anselm left Dubelt and set sail for Marseilles, with a ship's boy aboard who had small hands and the face of a girl dressed in boy's clothing. The ship's boy was Gray, the owner of an elegant travelling-bag, patent leather boots as fine as kid gloves and batiste linen adorned with a crown crest.

In the course of a year, while the Anselm sailed from France to America and Spain, Gray squandered a part of his possessions on pastry-cakes, thus paying tribute to the past, and the rest, for the present and future, he lost at cards. He wanted to be a red-blooded sailor. He choked as he downed his liquor, and when bathing, his heart would falter as he dived from a height of twelve feet. He gradually lost everything except that which was most important-his strange, soaring spirit; he lost his frailty, becoming broad of bone and strong of muscle, his paleness gave way to a deep tan, he relinquished his refined carelessness of movement for the sure drive of a working hand, and there was a sparkle in his intelligent eyes as in a person's who gazes into a fire. And his speech, having lost its uneven, haughtily shy fluidity, became brief and precise, as the thrust of a seagull at the quivering silver of a fish.

The captain of the Anselm was a kind man, but a stern seafarer who had taken the boy on out of maliciousness. He saw in Gray's desperate desire but an eccentric whim and gloated in advance, imagining that in two months' time

Gray would say, avoiding his eyes: "Captain Hop, I've skinned my elbows climbing the rigging; my back and sides ache, my fingers don't bend, my head is splitting and my legs are shaky- All these wet ropes weighing eighty pounds to balance in my hands; all these manropes, guy ropes, windlasses, cables, topmasts and cross-trees are killing my delicate body. I want to go home to my mamma." After listening mentally to this speech, Captain Hop would deliver, also mentally, the following speech: "You can go wherever you want to, ducky. If any tar's got stuck on your fine feathers you can wash it off at home - with Rose-Mimosa Cologne." This cologne that Captain Hop had invented pleased him most of all and, concluding his imaginary rebuke, he repeated aloud: "Yes. Run along to Rose-Mimosa."

As time went by this impressive dialogue came to the captain's mind less and less frequently, since Gray was advancing towards his goal with clenched teeth and a pale face. He bore the strenuous toil with a determined effort of will, feeling that it was becoming ever easier as the stern ship broke into his body and ineptitude was replaced by habit. On occasion the loop of the anchor chain would knock him off his feet, slamming him against the deck, or a rope that was not wound around the bitts would be torn out of his hands, taking the skin off his palms, or the wind would slap the wet corner of a sail with an iron ring sewn into it against his face; in a word, all his work was torture which demanded the utmost attention, yet, no matter how hard he breathed as he slowly straightened his back, a scornful smile never left his face. In silence did he endure all the scoffing, taunts and inevitable cursing until he became "one of the boys" in his new surroundings, but from then on he always countered an insult with his fists.

Once, when Captain Hop saw him skilfully tying a sail toll a yard, he said to himself: "Victory is on your side, you scoundrel." When Gray climbed down to the deck Hop summoned him to his cabin and, opening a dog-eared book, said:

"Listen closely. Stop smoking! We'll start fitting the pup out to be a captain."

And he began to read or, rather, to enunciate and shout the ancient words of the sea. This was Gray's first lesson. In the course of a year he got to know about navigation, shipbuilding, maritime law, sailing directions and bookkeeping. Captain Hop proffered him his hand and referred to the two of them as "we".

His mother's letter, full of tears and dread, caught up with Gray in

Vancouver. He replied: "I know. But if you could only see as I do: look at things through my eyes. If you could only hear as I do: put a seashell to your ear-it carries the sound of an eternal wave; if you could only love as

I do-everything, I would have found in your letter, besides love and a cheque, a smile." And he went on sailing until the Anselm arrived with a cargo for Dubelt from whence, while the ship was docked, the twenty-year-old

Gray set off to visit the castle.

Everything was as it had always been; as inviolable in detail and in general impression as five years before, although the crowns of the young elms were larger; the pattern they made on the facade of the building had moved and expanded.

The servants who came running were overjoyed, startled and froze as respectfully as if they had but yesterday greeted this Gray. He was told where his mother was; he entered the high chamber and, drawing the door shut softly, stopped soundlessly, gazing at the woman, now turned grey, in the black dress. She was standing before a crucifix; her fervent whisper was as audible as the pounding of a heart. "And bless those at sea, the wayfarers, the sick, the suffering and the imprisoned," Gray heard the words as he breathed rapidly. There followed: "And my boy.... " Then he said: "Here...."

But he could say no more. His mother turned. She had become thinner; a new expression lit up the haughtiness of her chiselled face, like the return of youth. She hurried towards her son; a burst of throaty laughter, a restrained exclamation and tears of her eyes-this was all. But in that moment she lived - more fully and happier than in the whole of her previous life.

"I recognized you instantly, my darling, my baby!"

And Gray indeed ceased being grown-up. He listened to her tale of his father's death and then told her about himself. She heeded him without reproach or protestation, but to herself-in everything he contended was the essence of his life,- she saw but toys her boy was playing with. These playthings were the continents, oceans and ships.

Gray spent seven days in the castle; on the eighth day, having taken along a large sum of money, he returned to Dubelt and said to Captain Hop:

"I thank you. You've been a good friend. Farewell now, my mentor." He sealed the word with a handshake as fierce as an iron vice. "From now on

I'll be sailing alone, on a ship of my own."

The blood rushed to Hop's head, he spat, yanked his hand away and stalked off, but Gray overtook him and put his arm around his shoulders. And so they went to a tavern all together, twenty-four of them, counting the crew, and drank, and shouted, and sang, and ate, and downed everything there was in the bar and in the kitchen.

But a short while later the evening star flashed above the black line of a new mast in the Port of Dubelt. It was the Secret, a two-hundred-and-sixty-ton, three-masted galliot Gray had purchased. Arthur

Gray sailed it for four more years as the owner and captain until chance brought him to Liss. However, he had remembered for always that short burst of throaty laughter that had greeted him at home, and so twice a year he visited the castle, leaving the silver-haired woman with an uncertain conviction that such a big boy might perhaps be able to handle his toys after all.