Preparing for battle Crimson sails

Preparing for battle Crimson sails

After Gray returned to the deck of the Secret he stood there motionlessly for some minutes, running his hand over his head from back to front, which indicated a state of utter confusion. Absent-mindedness - a veiled movement of the emotions-was reflected in the senseless smile of the sleep-walker on his face. His mate, Panten, was at that moment coming along the quarter-deck, carrying a dish of fried fish; sighting Gray, he noted the captain's strange state.

"You're not hurt, are you, sir?" he inquired cautiously. "Where were you? What did you see? Actually, though, that's none of my business. An agent has offerred us a profitable cargo with a bonus. But what's the matter with you, sir?"

"Thank you," Gray said with a sigh, as if he had been untied. "That was just what I needed, the sound of your simple, intelligent voice. It's like a dash of cold water. Tell the crew we're weighing anchor today, Panten, and moving into the mouth of the Liliana, about ten miles from here. The river bed is dotted with shoals. Come for the chart. We won't need a pilot. That's all for now.... Oh, yes, I need that profitable cargo like I need last year's snow. You can tell the agent that's what I said. I'm going to town now, and I'll be there till evening."

"But what happened?"

"Nothing at all, Panten. I want you to bear in mind my desire to avoid all questions. When the time comes, I'll tell you what it's all about. Tell the crew that we'll put up for repairs and that the local drydock is occupied."

"Yes, sir," Panten replied dazedly to Gray's retreating back. "Aye, aye, sir."

Although the captain's orders were quite sensible, the mate was goggled-eyed and raced off to his own cabin, carrying the dish of fish and mumbling: "You're puzzled, Panten. Is he thinking of trying his hand at smuggling? Will we be flying the Jolly Roger now?" At this Panten became confused by the wildest guesses. While he nervously wolfed down the fish,

Gray went to his cabin, took out a sum of money and, crossing the bay, appeared in the shopping section of Liss. Now, however, he acted determinedly and calmly, knowing down to the last detail all that he would do on this wondrous journey. Each motion - thought, movement-warmed him as with the refined joy of creative work. His plan was formed instantly and vividly. His understanding of life had undergone that last attack of the chisel after which marble is serene in its magnificent glowing.

Gray visited three shops, placing especial stress on the accuracy of his choice, since he was quite sure of the exact shade and colour he wanted.

In the first two shops he was shown silk of gaudy hues, intended to please an unsophisticated vanity; in the third he found samples of imaginative tints. The shopkeeper bustled about cheerfully, spreading out fabrics from his old stock, but Gray was as serious as an anatomist. He patiently unfolded parcels and bolts, laid them aside, moved them together, unrolled and brought up to the light so many crimson strips that the counter, piled high with them, seemed about to burst into flame. A scarlet wave fell upon the tip of Gray's boot; a pink reflection shone on his hands and face. As he rummaged among the slight resistance of the silk he noted the colours:

cerise, pink and old rose; the richly simmering cherry, orange and gloomy iron reds; here there were shades of all density and strength, as different in their imaginary kinship as are the words: "charming", "wonderful",

"magnificent", "exquisite"; in the folds there lurked allusions inaccessible to the language of the eyesight, but a true crimson tone evaded our captain for quite some time. The fabrics the shopkeeper brought out were good, but they did not evoke a clear, firm "yes". At last, one colour attracted the disarmed attention of the buyer; he sat down in an armchair by the window, pulled a long strip from the rustling bolt, dropped it on his knees and, sitting back with his pipe clenched between his teeth, became contemplatively still.

This colour, as absolutely pure as a crimson ray of morning, full of noble joy and regality, was just exactly the proud colour Gray was searching for. It did not contain the mixed shades of fire, poppy petals, the play of lilac or purple tints; nor was there any blueness or shadow - nothing to raise any doubt. It glowed like a smile with the charm of spiritual reflection. Gray became so lost in thought that he forgot about the shopkeeper who stood at his elbow with the alertness of a hunting dog pointing. Tiring of waiting, the merchant called attention to himself by the crack of a piece of cloth being ripped.

"That's enough samples," Gray said, rising. "I'm taking this silk."

"The whole bolt?" the merchant asked, politely doubting. But Gray stared at his forehead in silence, which prodded the shopkeeper to assume an undue familiarity. "How many metres, then?"

Gray nodded, as if telling the man to wait, and, with a pencil, figured the amount he needed on a slip of paper.

"Two thousand metres." He inspected the shelves dubiously. "Not more than two thousand metres."

"Two?" said the shopkeeper, jumping like a jack-in-the-box. "Thousand?

Metres? Please sit down, Captain. Would you like to see our latest samples,

Captain? As you wish. May I offer you a match, and some excellent tobacco?

Two thousand ... two thousand at...." He named a price which had as much to do with the real price as a vow does with a simple "yes", but Gray was satisfied, because he did not wish to bargain over anything. "A magnificent, excellent silk," the shopkeeper was saying, "unexcelled in quality. You won't find this anyplace else but here."

When the man had finally run out of laudation, Gray arranged to have the silk delivered, paid his bill, including this service, and left. He was seen to the door by the shopkeeper with as much pomp as if he were a Chinese emperor. Meanwhile, somewhere nearby, a street musician, having tuned his cello, drew his bow gently across it, making it speak out sadly and wonderfully; his comrade, the flutist, showered the singing of the strings with a trilling of throaty whistling; the simple song with which they filled the sun-sleepy yard reached Gray's ears, and he knew instantly what he had to do. Actually, all these days he had existed at that propitious height of spiritual vision from which he could clearly note every hint and prompt offered by reality. Upon hearing the sounds, drowned out by passing carriages, he entered into the very heart of the most important impressions and thoughts brought forth, in keeping with his nature, by this music, and could foresee why and how that which he had thought of would turn out well.

Passing the lane, Gray entered the gate of the house from where the music was coming. By this time the musicians were getting ready to move on; the tall flutist, with an air of dignity brought low, waved his hat gratefully at those windows from which coins were tossed. The cello was locked under its owner's arm again; he was mopping his wet brow and waiting for the flutist.

"Why, it's you, Zimmer!" Gray said to him, recognizing the violinist who entertained the seamen in the evenings with his magnificent playing at the Money on the Barrel Inn. "Why have you forsaken your violin?"

"Dear Captain," Zimmer objected smugly, "I play anything that makes sounds and rattles. In my youth I was a musical clown. I have now developed a passion for art, and I realize with a heavy heart that I've squandered away a real talent. That is why, from a feeling of late-come greed, I love two at once: the cello and the violin. I play the cello in the daytime and the violin in the evening, so that I seem to be weeping, to be sobbing over a lost talent. Will you offer me some wine? Hm? The cello is my Carmen, but the violin...."

"Is Assol," Gray said.

Zimmer misunderstood.

"Yes," he nodded, "a solo played on cymbals or brass pipes is something else again. However, what do I care? Let the clowns of art grimace and twitch - I know that fairies dwell within the violin and the cello."

"And what dwells in my tur-i-loo?" the flutist asked as he walked up.

He was a tall fellow with a sheep's blue eyes and a curly blond beard. "Tell me that now."

"It all depends on how much you've had to drink since morning.

Sometimes it's a bird, and sometimes it's liquor fumes. Captain, may I

present my partner Diiss? I told him about the way you throw your money around when you're drinking, and he's fallen in love with you, sight unseen."

"Yes," Diiss said, "I love a grand gesture and generosity. But I'm a sly fellow, so don't trust my vile flattery."

"Well, now," Gray said and smiled, "I'm pressed for time, and the matter is urgent. I can offer you a chance to earn some good money. Put together an orchestra, but not one that's made up of fops with funeral parlour faces who've forgotten in their musical pedantry or,-worse still-in their gastronomical soundings, all about the soul of music and are slowly spreading a pall over the stage with their intricate noises,- no.

Get together your friends who can make the simple hearts of cooks and butlers weep, get together your wandering tribe. The sea and love do not stand for pedants. I'd love to have a drink with you and polish off more than one bottle, but I must go. I've got a lot to attend to. Take this and drink to the letter A. If you accept my proposition, come to the Secret this evening.

It's moored near the first dam."

"Right!" Zimmer cried, knowing that Gray paid like a king. "Bow, Diiss, say 'yes' and twirl your hat from joy! Captain Gray has decided to get married!"

"Yes," Gray replied simply. "I'll tell you the details on board the

Secret. As for you...."

"Here's to A!" Diiss nudged Zimmer and winked at Gray. "But... there are so many letters in the alphabet! Won't you give us something for Z, too?"

Gray gave them some more money. The musicians departed. He then went to a commission agent and placed a secret order for a rush job, to be completed in six day's time, and costing an impressive amount. As Gray returned to his ship the agent was boarding a steamboat. Towards evening the silk was delivered; Letika had not yet returned, nor had the musicians arrived; Gray went off to talk to Panten.

It should be noted that in the course of several years Gray had been sailing with the same crew. At first, the captain had puzzled the sailors by the eccentric nature of his voyages and stops-which sometimes lasted for months-in the most trade-lacking, unpopulated places, but in time they were inspired by Gray's "grayism". Often he would sail with ballast alone, having refused to take on a profitable cargo for the sole reason that he did not like the freight offered. No one could ever talk him into taking on a load of soap, nails, machine parts or some such that would lie silently in the hold, evoking lifeless images of dull necessity. But he was always ready to take on fruit, china, animals, spices, tea, tobacco, coffee, silk and rare varieties of wood: ebony, sandalwood and teak. All this was in keeping with the aristocratism . of his imagination, creating a picturesque atmosphere;

small wonder then that the crew of the Secret, having been nurtured thus in the spirit of originality, should look down somewhat upon all other ships, engulfed as they were in the smoke of plain, ordinary profit. Still and all, this time Gray noted their questioning looks: even the dumbest sailor knew that there was no need to put up for repairs in a forest river.

Panten had naturally passed Gray's orders on to them. When Gray entered his mate was finishing his sixth cigar and pacing up and down the cabin, dizzy from so much smoke and stumbling over chairs. Evening was approaching;

a golden shaft of light protruded through the open porthole, and in it the polished visor of the captain's cap flashed.

"Everything's shipshape," Panten said sullenly. "We can weigh anchor now if you wish."

"You should know me by now," Gray said kindly. "There's no mystery about what I'm doing. As soon as we drop anchor in the Liliana I'll tell you all about it, and you won't have to waste so many matches on cheap cigars.

Go on and weigh anchor."

Panten smiled uncomfortably and scratched an eyebrow.

"Yes, I know. Not that I ... all right."

After he was gone Gray sat very still for a while, looking out of the door that was slightly ajar, and then went to his own cabin. There he first sat, then lay down and then, listening to the clatter of the windlass pulling up the loud chain, was about to go up to the forecastle deck but fell to pondering and returned to the table where his finger drew a quick, straight line across the oilcloth. A fist struck against the door brought him out of his maniacal trance; he turned the key, letting in Letika. The sailor, panting loudly, stood there looking like a messenger who has averted an execution at the very last moment.

"Let's go, Letika, I said to myself from where I stood on the pier," he said, speaking rapidly, "when I saw the boys here dancing around the windlass and spitting on their hands. I have an eagle-eye. And I flew. I was breathing down the boatman's back so hard he broke out in a nervous sweat.

Did you want to leave me behind, Captain?"

"Letika," Gray said, peering at his bloodshot eyes, "I expected you back no later than this morning. Did you pour cold water on the back of vour head?"

"Yes. Not as much as went down the hatch, but I did. I've done everything."

"Let's have it."

"There's no sense talking, Captain. It's all written down here. Read it. I did my best. I'm leaving."

"Where to?"

"I can see by the look on your face that I didn't pour enough cold water on my head."

He turned and exited with the strange movements of a blind man. Gray unfolded the slip of paper; the pencil must have been surprised as it produced the scrawl that resembled a crooked fence. This is what Letika had written:

"Following orders. I went down the street after 5 p.m. A house with a grey roof and two windows on either side; it has a vegetable garden. The person in question came out twice: once for water and once for kindling for the stove. After dark was able to look into the window, but saw nothing on account of the curtain."

There followed several notations of a domestic nature which Letika had apparently gleaned in conversation over a bottle, since the memorandum ended rather abruptly with the words: "Had to add a bit of my own to square the bill."

However, the gist of the report stated but that which we know of from the first chapter. Gray put the paper in his desk, whistled for the watch and sent the man for Panten, but the boatswain Atwood showed up instead, hastily pulling down his rolled-up sleeves.

"We've tied up at the dam. Panten sent me down to see what the orders are. He's busy fighting off some men with horns, drums and other violins.

Did you tell them to come aboard? Panten asked you to come up. He says his head's spinning."

"Yes, Atwood. I invited the musicians aboard. Tell them to go to the crew's quarters meanwhile. We'll see to them later. Tell them and the crew

I'll be up on deck in fifteen minutes, I want everyone in attendance. I

presume you and Panten will also listen to what I have to say."

Atwood cocked his left brow. He stood by the door for a few moments and then sidled out.

Gray spent the next ten minutes with his face buried in his hands; he was not preparing himself for anything, nor was he calculating. He simply wished to be silent for a while. In the meantime, everyone awaited him anxiously and with a curiosity full of surmise. He emerged and saw in their faces an expectation of improbable things, but since he considered that which was taking place to be quite natural, the tenseness of these other people's souls was reflected in his own as a slight annoyance.

"It's nothing out of the ordinary," said Gray, sitting down on the bridge ladder. "We'll lie to in the river till we change the rigging. You've all seen the red silk that's been delivered. The sailmaker Blent will be in charge of making new sails from it for the Secret. We'll then set sail, but

I can't say where to. At any rate, it won't be far from here. I am going for my wife. She's not my wife yet, but she will be. I must have red sails on my ship so that, according to the agreement, she can spot us from afar. That is all. As you see, there's nothing mysterious in all this. And we'll say no more about it."

"Indeed," said Atwood, sensing from the crew's smiling faces that they were pleasantly surprised but did not venture to speak. "So that's it,

Captain.... It's not for us to judge. We can only obey. Everything'll be as you wish. May I offer my congratulations." "Thank you!"

Gray gripped the boatswain's hand, but the latter.through superhuman effort, returned the handshake so firmly the captain yielded. Then the crew came up, mumbling words of congratulations with one man's warm smile replacing another's. No one shouted, no one cheered - for the men had sensed something very special in the captain's short speech. Panten heaved a sigh of relief and brightened visibly - the weight that had lay on his heart melted away. The ship's carpenter was the only one who seemed displeased. He shook Gray's hand listlessly and said morosely:

"How'd you ever think of it, Captain?"

"It was like a blow of your axe. Zimmer! Let's see your boys."

The violinist, slapping the musicians on the back, pushed seven sloppily dressed men out of the crowd.

"Here," Zimmer said. "This is the trombone. He doesn't play, he blasts.

These two beardless boys are trumpeters; when they start playing, everybody feels like going off to war. Then there's the clarinet, the cornet and the second fiddle. AH of them are past masters at accompanying the lively prima, meaning me. And here's the headmaster of our merry band - Fritz, the drummer. You know, drummers usually look disappointed, but this one plays with dignity and fervour. There's something open-hearted and as straight as his drumsticks about his playing. Will there be anything else, Captain


"Magnificent. A place has been set aside for you in the hold, which this time, apparently, will be filled with all sorts of scherzos, adagios and fortissimos. To your places, men. Cast off and head out, Panten! I'll relieve you in two hours."

He did not notice the passing of these two hours, as they slipped by to the accompaniment of the same inner music that never abandoned his consciousness, as the pulse does not abandon the arteries. He had but one thought, one wish, one goal. Being a man of action, in his mind's eye he anticipated the events, regretting only that they could not be manipulated as quickly and easily as chequers on a board. Nothing about his calm exterior bespoke the inner tension whose booming, like the clanging of a great bell overhead, reverberated through his body as a deafening, nervous moan. It finally caused him to begin counting to himself: "One... two...

thirty..."-and so on, until he said: "One thousand." This mental exercise had its effect; he was finally able to take a detached view of the project.

He was somewhat surprised at not being able to imagine what Assol was like as a person, for he had never even spoken to her. He had once read that one could, though incompletely, understand a person if, imaging one's self to be that person, one imitated the expression of his face. Gray's eyes had already begun to assume a strange expression that was alien to them, and his lips under his moustache were curling up into a faint, timid smile, when he suddenly came to his senses, burst out laughing and went up to relieve


It was dark. Panten had raised the collar of his jacket and was pacing back and forth by the compass, saying to the helmsman:

"Port, one quarter point. Port. Stop. A quarter point more."

The Secret was sailing free at half tack.

"You know," Panten said to Gray, "I'm pleased."

"What by?"

"The same thing you are. Now I know. It came to me right here on the bridge." He winked slyly as the fire of his pipe lighted his smile.

"You don't say?" Gray replied, suddenly understanding what he was getting at. "And what do you know?"

"It's the best way to smuggle it in. Anybody can have whatever kind of sails he wants to. You're a genius, Gray!"

"Poor old Panten!" the captain said, not knowing whether to be angry or to laugh. "Your guess is a clever one, but it lacks any basis in fact. Go to bed. You have my word for it that you're wrong. I'm doing exactly as I


He sent him down to sleep, checked their course and sat down. We shall leave him now, for he needs to be by himself.