its shrouds and rocks its light beams, he ceases to be just a boy and
becomes a navigator of the future...
"Little ships teach people to be brave. When sailors look at models
of old frigates, they became mindful of the valour shown by their
forebears in the past battles...
"And these models are a joy and consolation to old sailors for they
help them recall their past voyages and moments of glory and keep their
maritime pride alive in their old hearts...
"That's how it is... And then there's one other thing: models of
ships are supposed to be lucky.
"You've no doubt heard of the custom of hanging little ships from the
ceilings in seaport taverns. They're meant to remind sailors who've been
ashore too long that it's time to be getting back to sea. And they
reassure those who are far away from home that a reliable, strong ship
will carry them safety back home..."
Alex listened without interrupting. It was all very interesting. He
thought about how he could spend a whole year among these ships in the
basement without ever getting bored. But he could not stay there a year
because it was Masha's birthday the next day. And the little three-masted
clipper with a walnut-coloured body interested Alex more than the entire
miniature fleet put together.
The Curator fell silent, gazed attentively at Alex and then said,
"I'm sorry, I got carried away. Now, why are you here?"
Alex sighed and said hesitantly, "Well, you know, it's a long
The Curator seemed delighted, "Is it? How splendid! Then come on."
He took Alex into a corner which had been partitioned off by some
cupboards and made into a separate small room. It had an ordinary-looking
lamp standing on an ordinary-looking table, a chair and a narrow
leatherette sofa which had most likely been taken from a ship's cabin.
Alex noticed an electric stove and an enamel kettle on the table.
The Curator plugged the stove in, put the kettle on, sat down on the
sofa and invited Alex to join him.
"Well, go ahead, I'm all ears..."
But Alex did not know how to begin. Even his shoulders began
trembling with excitement, and the Curator asked anxiously, "Do you fell
cold? It's rather damp in here because the basement's below sea-level and
the sea sometimes seeps through the walls here and there. But there's no
real harm in that. The sea's moisture only does the ships good. And I've
got used to it. But mind you don't catch a chill..."
"Oh no," said Alex.
And he began telling all about Sofia Alexandrovna and her hats and
cats and about the clipper and, finally about Masha. And when he had
finished, he found the Curator staring gravely and even sternly at him.
"You mean, you want to give her the model as a present?" he asked.
"That's a good idea... But, you know, you can only make a gift of
something that's yours. Something you've made yourself or, say, bought or
earned. But is the clipper really yours?"
"Well... After all, Sofia Alexandrovna did want to give it to me..."
"She wanted to but she didn't..."
"Yes, but as it was swept away by the rain, it doesn't belong to
anyone now. And I've come all this way looking for it."
"But you haven't found it."
"Isn't it here?
"Yes, most likely," said the Curator. "That's the whole point: it's
here and not with you. It found its own way here."
Alex kept silent for a while because he was afraid he might start
crying in dismay. Then he said quietly, "You've got thousands of models.
I only need one. Surely you don't mind giving up one?"
The Curator shrugged his shoulders and said, "To tell the truth, I
really do. But that's not the point. Our museum has strict regulations. I
can't give the model away if the person can't prove it belongs to him.
Can you prove that it's yours by rights?"
"Prove it? How? I've already told you everything... No, wait...
there's one other thing."
Alex screwed up his eyes with embarrassment and blurted out with
desperate determination, "I've written a poem about the clipper!"
"A poem?" repeated the Curator, drumming his fingers on his knees.
"Poems are serious things. Well then, let's hear it."
It was difficult reciting sitting down and so Alex stood up, leaned
against the cupboard, turned his head away and began reciting huskily,
"Once upon a time there lived an old ship-wright... Well, that's how it
starts. It's called 'Ballad about a Clipper'.
Once upon a time there lived an old ship-wright,
Who smoked a pipe and dreamed of the sea.
And then one day he built a model ship -
Tiny it was but as real as can be.
Just like a frigate, a marvellous sight,
With mizzens and bowsprit, all his labour.
But the tired old ship-wright died one night,
And the ship was left with his neighbour.
Alex paused for breath and then began reciting more calmly:
Well now, she did not treat it badly.
And kept it dust-free and behind glass.
But not once did the old lady dream
Of a creaking helm or a squall's mighty blast.
What did she care for seas, anchors and cannons?
What did she care for the ocean's blue face?..
A hoarse little cuckoo cried on the hour.
And cockroaches ran over the glass-case...
He recalled the peeling wall-paper, tiny windows, and chest of
drawers reeking of mothballs in the dark corner and his voice resounded
with pity for the little ship:
Surrounded by hats, all old and worn,
Dusty plumes and felt, rotten and faded,
How could the wonder ship not feel forlorn,
The clipper once born of the wind and sea?
What did it see on lonely dark nights,
With its bowsprit turned to the blind window?
Stubborn and desperate, was it waiting for the wind?
Or calling to someone to rescue it?
And the damp south-westerly roared
And the rainstorm lashed and seethed.
Floods tore the small house from its roots,
And at last the little ship was freed.
It sailed away over golden dawns,
Towards bright crimson sunsets inclined,
May the fickle breezes keep it safe
On its dangerous course to far-off climes...
"That's all..." said Alex. "So far. I haven't thought of an ending
The Curator sat in silence for a while and then snapped his fingers
and got up slowly.
"Well, Alex... You still don't know how the clipper's story ends.
You'll finish the poem off later. We won't argue any more. The clipper's
Confused and delighted, Alex was struck dumb. The Curator strode over
to the table and touched the kettle.
"It's warm enough. Let's have supper. Then you can kip down here for
the night and go home tomorrow morning."
"But I may be late!"
"Hardly. Come on, show me your ticket... No, friend, you'll never be
late with a ticket like this. Sit yourself down."
Alex was very hungry, and ate two buttered ham rolls and drank three
cups of sweet tea. Then he felt desperately tired and the only thing that
worried him now was the whereabouts of the little ship.
The Curator brought over a camp-bed, set it up and handed Alex a
shaggy brown blanket.
"Lie down. I'll be back in a jiffy..." he said and went out.
Alex did as he was told. Through a tiny window high above him he
could see two white stars. The air smelt of the sea and damp seashore
pebbles and not at all like basements usually smell. He shut his eyes
tightly and at once imagined he was lying on some rocks right by the sea.
"And the little ships most likely think they're lying at anchor in a
harbour," he thought.
The Curator came back carrying the model clipper and put it down on
the table. Alex smiled gratefully.
"Look here," said the Curator, "are you really sure it'll be better
off in Masha's keeping than at the museum? Here it's among other ships
and feels really at home. Hundreds of boys and sailors come here during
the day-time. They'd get a lot of pleasure from looking at it... But are
you sure Masha will? Will she love it?"
"Are you sure you aren't mistaken?"
"Yes, quite sure."
"Well then, good night..."
A sunbeam pounced through the little window like a warm, fluffy
kitten and woke Alex up.
The Curator was nowhere to be seen. A ship's clock with a bronze rim
was ticking away in a corner. Its small hand was pointed to seven.
Alex jumped up.
The Curator was standing on the table next to Alex's Green Pass.
"Good luck" had been written in bold red pencil on one of its corners.
"Thanks," said Alex to himself.
Half a loaf of bread was also lying there and a warm kettle was
standing on the stove. However, as he did not feel hungry, he took the
clipper and walked down up the long sloping corridor and out into the
The street, overcast with shadows, was old and so narrow that only a
dark-blue crooked slit of sky was visible above, and through it tiny
yellow clouds were racing past between pointed triangular roofs.
"That means a wind's up," thought Alex. "But how come the clouds are
flying this way and that and heaven knows where?"
There was also a small wind blowing along the street. The clipper's
sails filled out, and it lunged ahead as if wanting to take wing but Alex
carefully and firmly held onto it.
After striding past some grey and pink houses, winged stone lions,
creaking tin signboards and old lamp-posts, he suddenly remembered he had
not asked the Curator the way to the station. He did not worry about it
though, so far the road itself had taken him the right way.
The street wound on and on and the houses seemed without end... And
then all of a sudden it seemed to Alex that the blue slit of sky had
dropped to the ground and split the town in two. It was the sea sparkling
at the end of the street.
Alex started, stood still for a moment and then ran towards the
dazzling blue sea. The oncoming wind turned the little ship's sails
inside out and flattened them against the masts. Alex thought the street
was leading him to the shore but when the houses ended, a square with
towers on it stretched between him and the sea.
And Alex stopped again. Just imagine this scene: a vast deep blue sky
up above, a vast deep blue sea in front of you, a huge square by the sea
and towers in the square which looked as if they had been gathered from
fairy-tales and sea-adventure stories. They were all very different; some
were made of grey blocks, others of orange bricks and even of white
marble. Some were imposing and grim like fortresses and others ornamental
like palaces, with merlons or pointed roofs, spires and weather-vanes,
balconies and patterned windows. And others were simply large
lighthouses. A spiral staircase with bronze tubular railings ran from
the top to the bottom of one of them and a ship's mast stood on its top
Alex got so carried away looking at them that he even forgot about
the sea. Then he walked cautiously across the square, feeling as one who
had chanced, like Gulliver, upon a land of slumbering giants. The square
was totally silent except for the clattering sound of Alex's steps across
the cockle-shell slabs and the pounding sea.
The square was paved with square slabs and growing in the crevices
between them were various plants but mostly stiff shrubs with little pink
flowers. The towers stood far apart from each other. Tossing back his
head, Alex walked round each one in turn, and it seemed to him that they
were swaying slightly. The lenses of the lighthouses' beacons were
shining overhead, the lacy aerials loomed black and gay-coloured signal
flags fluttered in the wind. The clouds raced in different directions,
only the pounding sound of the surf grew louder and louder.
Alex saw that he had come very close to the sea.
Large waves were running towards the shore, white manes on blue
crests. The shore was low and the square was almost level with the sea.
The slabs sloped very gently into the water, and the waves swished
against them and raced along them far into the square. Eddy pools whirled
by the towers' mighty foundations and the small oak doors in stone
niches. Then the water reluctantly receded leaving long strips of
vanishing foam. Seaweed stuck in the crevices between the slabs, and
marooned crabs scampered backwards after the rapidly retreating water.
Alex walked along the damp cockle-shell slabs and a wave broke over
his sandals, soaking his trousers.
"I'd better roll them up," he said to himself but did not attempt to
because he would have had to put the clipper down and it might have been
swept away by the waves.
Standing closest to the sea was a grey lighthouse tower with a high
porch and railings like those on a captain's bridge. A thin suntanned boy
in red swimming trunks came out onto the porch, screwed up his eyes
against the sun and jumped down onto the slabs from the top step. A
wave immediately swept over his legs, up to his knees and then ran back
again. The boy burst out laughing and, splashing barefooted across the
slabs, came towards where Alex was standing.
He did not notice Alex at first, but as soon as he did, he stopped,
became serious and came closer. Glancing first at the little ship and
then into Alex's face, he said slowly, "What a beauty..."
And he did not say it with envy but as if asking Alex whether he was
delighted to own such a wonderful little ship.
"Yes," replied Alex. "Everyone says that. It's a clipper."
"I know. Granddad promised to make me one but he never has time. But
now I'll ask him to get a move on."
Although he only came up to Alex's shoulders, he did not seem small.
He was obviously a bold and cheerful little lad.
"And what does your granddad do?" asked Alex. "It he a sailor?"
"No, he's a scientist. He studies the midnight north-westerly."
"That's good work," said Alex with respect. "And do you both live
here in this tower?"
"No, only Granddad does. I just come and visit him and spend the
night with him whenever I like. We watch the wind together."
He gazed at Alex and the sea was reflected in his eyes (for you see
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