Dawn Crimson sails

Dawn Crimson sails

The stream of foam cast off by the stern of Gray's Secret crossed the ocean as a white streak and faded in the glow of the evening lights of Liss.

The ship dropped anchor near the lighthouse.

For the next ten days the Secret unloaded tussore silk, coffee and tea;

the crew spent the eleventh day ashore, relaxing in alcoholic fumes; on the twelfth day, for no good reason, Gray was blackly despondent and could not understand this despondency.

He had barely come awake in the morning when he felt that this day had begun in a black shroud. He dressed glumly, ate breakfast half-heartedly, forgot to read the newspaper and smoked for a long while, plunged into an inexpressible mood of futile tension; among the vaguely emerging words unacknowledged desires roamed, destroying each other through equal effort.

Then he got down to work.

Accompanied by the boatswain, Gray inspected the ship and ordered the guy ropes tightened, the tiller rope loosened, the hawse cleaned, the tack changed, the deck tarred, the compass wiped and the hold opened, aired and swept. However, this did not dispel his dark mood. Filled with an uneasy awareness of the gloom of the day, he spent it irritably and sadly: it was as if someone had called to him, but he had forgotten who it was and whence.

Towards evening he settled back in his cabin, picked up a book and argued with the author at length, making marginal notes of a paradoxical nature. For a while he was amused by this game, this conversation with a dead man holding sway from the grave. Then, lighting his pipe, he became immersed in the blue smoke, living among the spectral arabesques that appeared in its shifting planes.

Tobacco is very potent; as oil poured onto the surging rent between the waves allays their frenzy, so does tobacco soothe irritation and dull the emotions by several degrees; they become calmer and more musical. Therefore, after three pipes, Gray's depression finally lost its aggressive nature and was transformed into thoughtful distraction. This state lasted for about another hour; when the fog lifted from his soul, Gray came to with a start, hungered for exercise and went up on deck. It was night; alongside, in the slumbering black water, there dozed the stars and the lights of the mast lanterns. The air, as warm as a cheek, brought in the smell of the sea. Gray raised his head and squinted at the gold coal of a star; instantly, through the dizzying distance, the fiery needle of a remote planet penetrated his pupils. The muted noise of the town at evening reached his ears from the depths of the bay; sometimes a phrase from the shore was wafted in across the sensitive surface of the water; it would sound clearly, as if spoken on deck and then be snuffed out by the creaking of the rigging; a match flared on the forecastle deck, lighting up a hand, a pair of round eyes and a moustache. Gray whistled; the lighted pipe moved and floated towards him;

soon, in the dark, the captain made out the hands and face of the man on watch. "Tell Letika he's coming with me," Gray said. "Tell him to take along the fishing tackle."

He went down into the rowboat where he waited for Letika for about ten minutes; a nimble, shifty-eyed youth banged the oars against the side as he handed them down to Gray; then he climbed down himself, fitted them into the oarlocks and stuck a bag of provisions into the stern of the rowboat. Gray sat at the tiller.

"Where to, Captain?" Letika asked, rowing in a circle with the right oar alone.

The captain was silent. The sailor knew that one could not intrude upon this silence and, therefore, falling silent as well, he began rowing swiftly.

Gray set their course out to sea and then steered them along the left bank. He did not care where they were going. The tiller gurgled; the oars creaked and splashed; all else was sea and silence.

In the course of a day a person heeds to so many thoughts, impressions, speeches and words that together they would fill many a heavy tome. The face of a day takes on a definite expression, but today Gray searched this face in vain. Its obscure features glowed with one of those emotions of which there are many, but which have not been given a name. No matter what they are called, they will forever remain beyond the scope of words and even concepts, so like the effect of an aroma. Gray was now at the mercy of just such an emotion; true, he might have said: "I am waiting. I see. I shall soon know,"-but even these words were equal to no more than are the separate drawings in relation to an architectural conception. Yet, there was the power of radiant excitement in these ideas.

The bank appeared to the left like a wavy thickening of darkness.

Sparks from the chimneys danced above the red glass of the windows; this was

Kaperna. Gray could hear shouting, wrangling and barking. The lights of the village resembled a firebox door that has burned through in tiny spots to let you see the flaming coal inside. To the right was the ocean, as real as the presence of a sleeping person. Having passed Kaperna, Gray steered towards the shore. The water lapped against it softly here; lighting his lantern, he saw the pits in the bluff and its upper, overhanging ledges; he liked the spot.

"We'll fish here," Gray said, tapping the oarsman on the shoulder.

The sailor harrumphed vaguely.

"This is the first time I've ever sailed with such a captain," he muttered. "He's a sensible captain, but no ordinary kind. A difficult captain. But I like him all the same."

He stuck the oar into the silt and tied the boat to it and they both scrambled up the stones that rolled out from under their knees and elbows.

There was a thicket at the top of the bluff. The sound of an axe splitting a dry trunk followed; having felled the tree, Letika made a campfire on the bluff. Shadows moved, and the flames that were reflected in the water; in the receding gloom the grass and branches stood out; the air, mingled with smoke, shimmered and glowed above the fire.

Gray sat by the campfire.

"Here," he said, proffering a bottle, "drink to all teetotallers, my friend Letika. And, by the way, the vodka you brought along is flavoured with ginger, not quinine."

"I'm sorry, Captain," the sailor replied, catching his breath. "If you don't mind, I'll eat it down with this...." At which he bit off half a roast chicken and, extracting a wing from his mouth, continued: "I know you like quinine. But it was dark, and I was in a hurry. Ginger, you see, embitters a man. I always drink ginger vodka when I have to g-As the captain ate and drank, the sailor kept stealing glances at him and, finally, unable to contain himself any longer, he said,

"Is it true, Captain, what they say? That you come from a noble family?"

"That's of no importance, Letika. Take your tackle and fish a while if you want to." "What about you?"

"Me? I don't know. Maybe. But ... later." Letika unwound his line, chanting in rhyme, something he was a past master at, to the delight of the crew.

"From a string and piece of wood I made a very fine, long whip. Then I

found a hook to fit it, and I whistled sharp and quick." He poked about in a tin of worms. "This old worm lived in a burrow and was happy as could be, but I've got him hooked real good now, and the perch will all thank me."

Finally, he walked off, singing: "Moonlight shines, the vodka's perfect, fishes, harken, I draw near. Herrings, faint, and sturgeon skitter, Letika is fishing here!"

Gray lay down by the fire, gazing at the water and the reflection of the flames. He was thinking, but effortlessly; in this condition one's mind, while observing one's surroundings absently, comprehends them but dimly; it rushes on like a stallion in a jostling herd, crushing and shoving aside, and halting; emptiness, confusion and delay attend it in turn. It wanders within the souls of things; from bright agitation it hurries to secret intimations; passing from earth to sky, conversing on the subject of life with imaginary personages, snuffing out and embellishing one's memories. In this cloudy movement all is live and palpable, and all is as loosely hung together as a hallucination. And one's relaxing consciousness often smiles, seeing, for instance, one's thoughts on life suddenly accosted by a most inopportune visitor: perhaps a twig broken two years before. Thus was Gray thinking by the fire, but he was "somewhere else"-not there.

The elbow he was leaning on, while supporting his head on his hand, became damp and numb. The stars shone faintly; the gloom was intensified by a tenseness preceding dawn. The captain was dozing off, but did not realize it. He felt like having a drink, and he put his hand out towards the sack, untying it in his sleep. Then he stopped dreaming; the next two hours were to him no longer than the seconds during which he had laid his head upon his arms. Meanwhile, Letika had appeared by the campfire twice, he had smoked and, out of curiosity, had looked into the mouths of the fish he had caught, wondering what might be there. But, quite naturally, nothing was.

Upon awakening, Gray forgot for a moment how he happened to be where he was. He gazed in astonishment at the cheerful shine of the morning, the bluff adorned by bright branches and the blazing blue distance. The leaves of a hazel bush hung over the horizon and also over his feet. At the bottom of the bluff-Gray felt it was right at his back-the tide lapped softly.

Falling from a leaf, a dewdrop spread over his sleepy face in a cold splatter. He rose. Light had triumphed everywhere. The cooling brands of the campfire clutched at life with a tendril of smoke. Its aroma imparted a wild headiness to the pleasure of breathing the air of the green woods.

Letika was nowhere in sight; he was oblivious to all; he sweated as he fished with the zeal of a true gambler. Gray left the woods for the bush-dotted slope. The grass smoked and flamed; the moist flowers resembled children who had been forcibly scrubbed with cold water. The green world breathed with myriad tiny mouths, blocking Gray's way through its exultant cluster. The captain finally got to a clearing overgrown with grass and flowers, and here he saw a sleeping girl.

He cautiously moved aside a branch and stopped, feeling that he had made a dangerous discovery. But five steps away lay a tired Assol, curled up with one leg tucked under her and the other stretched out, and her head resting on her comfortably crossed arms. Her hair was mussed; a button had come undone at her collar, revealing a white hollow; her tumbled skirt had bared her knees; her lashes slept upon her cheek in the shadow of her delicately curved temple, half-covered by a dark lock; the pinky of her right hand, which was under her head, curled over the back of her head. Gray squatted and looked into the girl's face from below, never suspecting that he resembled the Faun in Arnold Bocklin's painting.

Perhaps, under other circumstances, he would have noticed the girl with his eyes alone, but now he saw her differently. Everything stirred, everything smiled within him. Naturally, he did not know her or her name, or, moreover, why she had fallen asleep on the shore; but he was very pleased by this. He liked pictures that were accompanied neither by an explanatory text nor by a caption. The impression such a picture makes is far more powerful; its content, unencumbered by words, becomes boundless, affirming all conjectures and thoughts.

The shadow cast by the leaves was approaching the trunks, but Gray still squatted there in that uncomfortable position. Everything about the girl was asleep: her dark hair slept, her dress slept, as did the pleats of her skirt; even the grass near her body, it seemed, was dozing out of sympathy. When the impression became complete, Gray entered its warm, engulfing waves and sailed off on it. Letika had been shouting for some time: "Captain! Where are you?", but the captain heard him not.

When he finally rose, a predilection for the unusual caught him unawares with the determination and inspiration of an angered woman. Giving way to it pensively, he removed the treasured old ring from his finger, thinking, and not without reason, that perhaps, in this way, he was suggesting something essential to life, similar to orthography. He slipped the ring gently onto the pinky that showed white under the back of her head.

The pinky twitched in annoyance and curled up. Glancing once again at this resting face, Gray turned to see the sailor's sharply-raised brows. Letika was gaping as he watched the captain's movements with the kind of astonishment Jonah must have felt as he gazed down the maw of his furnished whale.

"Ah, it's you, Letika! Look at her. Isn't she beautiful?" "A wondrous painting!" the sailor shouted in a whisper, for he liked bookish expressions. "There's something prepossessing in the presentation of the circumstances. I caught four morays and another one, as round as a bladder."

"Shh, Letika. Let's get out of here." They retreated into the bushes.

They should have turned back to the rowboat now, but Gray procrastinated, looking off into the distance at the low bank, where the morning smoke from the chimneys of Kaperna streamed over the greenery and the sand. In the smoke he once again saw the girl-Then he turned determinedly and went down the slope; the sailor did not question him about what had happened, but walked on behind; he sensed that once again a compulsory silence ensued.

When they reached the first houses Gray suddenly said,

"Can your practised eye tell us where the tavern is, Letika?"

"It must be that black roof," Letika mused, "but then, again, maybe it isn't."

"What's so special about that roof?"

"I really don't know, Captain. Nothing more than the voice of my heart."

They approached the house; it was indeed Menners' tavern. Through the open window they could see a bottle on the table; beside it someone's dirty hand was milking a steel-grey moustache.

Although it was still early in the day there were three men in the common room. The coalman, the owner of the drunken grey moustache already noted, was sitting by the window; two fishermen were lodged around some scrambled eggs and beer at a table set between the bar and an inner door.

Menners, a tall young man with a dull, freckled face and that peculiar expression of bold cunning in his near-sighted eyes that is a distinctive feature of tradesmen in general, was wiping plates behind the counter. The window frame was imprinted in the sunshine on the dirty floor.

No sooner had Gray stepped into the strip of smoky light than Menners, bowing respectfully, came out from behind his enclosure. He had immediately sensed a real captain in Gray-a type of client rarely to be seen there.

Gray ordered rum. Covering the table with a cloth become yellowed in the bustle of daily life, Menners brought over a bottle, but first licked the corner of the label that had come unstuck. Then he went back behind the counter to look intently now at Gray, now at the plate from which he was picking off a dry particle of food.

While Letika, having raised his glass between his hands, was whispering to it softly and glancing out the window, Gray summoned Hin Menners. Hin perched on the edge of a chair with a self-satisfied air, flattered at having been addressed, and especially flattered because this had been done by a simple crook of Gray's finger.

"I assume you know all the local inhabitants," Gray said in an even voice. "I would like to know the name of a girl in a kerchief, in a dress with pink flowers, auburn-haired, of medium height, between seventeen and twenty years of age. I came upon her not far from here. What is her name?"

He spoke with a firm simplicity of strength that made it impossible to evade his tone. Hin Menners squirmed inwardly and even smirked slightly, but outwardly he obeyed the nature of the address. However, he hesitated before replying-but only from a futile desire to guess what was up

"Hm!" he said, raising his eyes to the ceiling. "It must be

Sailing-ship Assol. She's a halfwit."

"Indeed?" Gray said indifferently, taking a big sip. "Why is she like that?"

"If you really want to know, I'll tell you."

And Hin told Gray of the time, seven years before, when, on the seashore, the girl had spoken to a man who collected folk songs. Naturally, this story, in the years since the beggar had first affirmed its existence in the tavern, had taken the shape of a crude and ugly rumour, but the essence remained unchanged.

"And that's what she's been called ever since," Menners said. "She's called Sailing-ship Assol."

Gray glanced automatically at Letika, who was still behaving quietly and modestly, then his eyes turned to the dusty road outside the tavern, and he felt as if he had been struck-a double blow to his heart and head.

Coming down the road towards him was the very same Sailing-ship Assol whom

Menners had just described from a clinical point of view. Her striking features, which resembled the mystery of unforgettable, stirring, yet simple words, appeared to him now in the light of her gaze. The sailor and Menners both had their backs to the window and, in order that they not turn accidentally, Gray found the courage to shift his gaze to Hin's ginger eyes.

After he had seen Assol's eyes, all the prejudice of Menners' story was dispelled. Meanwhile, Hin continued unsuspectingly:

"I can also add that her father is a real bastard. He drowned my pater like he was a cat or something, God forgive me. He...."

He was interrupted by an unexpected, wild howl coming from behind. The coalman, rolling his eyes fiercely and having cast off his drunken stupor, suddenly began bawling a song, but with such force that it made everyone jump:

Basket-maker, basket-maker, Skin us for your baskets!

"You're roaring drunk again, you damn whaleboat!" Menners shouted. "Get out!"

But take care that you don't fall Right into our caskets!

the coalman bawled and then, as if nothing were amiss, he | dunked his moustache into a slopping glass.

Hin Menners shrugged indignantly.

"He's the scum of the earth," he said with the sinister | dignity of the miser. "It happens every time!"

"Is there anything else you can tell me?" Gray asked.

"Me? I just told you her father's a bastard. On account of him, sir, I was orphaned, and while still a boy was forced to earn my bread by the sweat-of my brow."

"You're lying!" the coalman said unexpectedly. "You're lying so foully and unnaturally that it's sobered me up."

Before Hin had a chance to open his mouth, the coalman addressed Gray:

"He's lying. His father was a liar, too; as was his mother. It runs in the family. Rest assured, she's as sane as you and me. I've spoken to her.

She rode in my cart eighty-four times or a bit less. If a girl's walking home from town and I've sold all my coal, I'll always give her a lift. She might as well ride. I'm saying that she has a sane head on her shoulders.

You can see that now. Naturally, she'd never talk to you, Hin Menners. But me, sir, in my free coal trade, I despise gossip and rumours. She talks like a grown-up, but her way of talking is strange. If you listen closely-it seems like just the same as you and me would say, and it is, but yet, it isn't. For instance, we got to talking about her trade. 'I'll tell you something,' she said, and her holding onto my shoulder like a fly to a bell-tower, 'my work isn't dull, but I keep wanting to think up something special. I want to find a way to make a boat that'll sail by itself, with oarsmen that'll really row; then, they'll dock at the shore, tie up and sit down on the beach to have a bite, just exactly as if they were alive.' I

started laughing, see, 'cause I found it funny. So I said, 'Well, Assol, it's all because of the kind of work you do, that's why you think like this, but look around; the way other people work, you'd think they were fighting.'

'No,' she says, 'I know what I know. When a fisherman's fishing he keeps thinking he'll catch a big fish, bigger than anyone ever caught.' 'What about me?' 'You?' She laughed. Til bet that when you fill your basket with coal you think it'll burst into bloom.' That's the words she used! That very moment, I confess, I don't know what made me do it, I looked into the empty basket, and I really thought I was seeing buds coming out of the basket twigs; the buds burst and leaves splashed all over the basket and were gone.

I even sobered UP a bit! But Hin Menners will lie in his teeth and never bat an eye-I know him!"

Finding the conversation to have taken an obviously insulting turn,

Menners looked at the coalman scathingly and disappeared behind the counter, from where he asked bitterly: "Do you want to order anything else?"

"No," said Gray, pulling out his purse. "We're getting up and leaving.

Letika, you stay here. Come back this evening and don't say a word. Having discovered all you can, report to me. Understand?"

"My dear Captain," Letika said with a familiarity brought on by the rum, "only a deaf-mute would not have understood this."

"Fine. And don't forget that not in a single instance of the many that may occur can you speak of me, or even mention my name. Goodbye!"

Gray left. From then on he was possessed by a consciousness of astonishing discoveries, like a spark in Berthold's powder mortar,-one of those spiritual avalanches from under which fire escapes, blazing. He was possessed by a desire for immediate action. He came to his senses and was able to think clearly only when he got into the rowboat. Laughing, he held out his hand, palm up, to the scorching sun, as he had done once as a boy in the wine cellar; then he shoved off and began rowing swiftly towards the harbour.