The Talking Ships

by Arthur Thomas Quiller-Couch

The White Wolf and Other Fireside Tales

He was a happy boy, for he lived beside a harbour, and just below the last bend where the river swept out of steep woodlands into view of the sea. A half-ruined castle, with a battery of antiquated guns, still made-believe to protect the entrance to the harbour, and looked across it upon a ridge of rocks surmounted by a wooden cross, which the Trinity pilots kept in repair. Between the cross and the fort, for as long as he could remember, a procession of ships had come sailing in to anchor by the great red buoy immediately beneath his nursery window. They belonged to all nations, and hailed from all imaginable ports; and from the day his nurse had first stood him upon a chair to watch them, these had been the great interest of his life. He soon came to know them all—French brigs and chasse-marees, Russian fore-and-afters, Dutch billyboys, galliots from the East coast, and Thames hay-barges with vanes and wind-boards. He could tell you why the Italians were deep in the keel, why the Danes were manned by youngsters, and why these youngsters deserted, although their skippers looked, and indeed were, such good-natured fellows; what food the French crews hunted in the seaweed under the cliff, and when the Baltic traders would be driven southward by the ice. Once acquainted with a vessel, he would recognise her at any distance, though by what signs he could no more tell than we why we recognise a friend.

On his seventh birthday he was given a sailing boat, on condition that he learned to read; but, although he kept by the bargain honestly, at the end of a month he handled her better than he was likely to handle his book in a year. He had a companion and instructor, of course— a pensioner who had left the Navy to become in turn fisherman, yachtsman, able seaman on board a dozen sailing vessels, and now yachtsman again. His name was Billy, and he taught the boy many mysteries, from the tying of knots to the reading of weather-signs; how to beach a boat, how to take a conger off the hook, how to gaff a cuttle and avoid its ink. . . . In return the boy gave him his heart, and even something like worship.

One fine day, as they tacked to and fro a mile and more from the harbour's mouth, whiffing for mackerel, the boy looked up from his seat by the tiller. "I say, Billy, did you speak?"

Billy, seated on the thwart and leaning with both arms on the weather gunwale, turned his head lazily. "Not a word this half-hour," he answered.

"Well now, I thought not; but somebody, or something—spoke just now." The boy blushed, for Billy was looking at him quizzically. "It's not the first time I've heard it, either," he went on; "sometimes it sounds right astern, and sometimes close beside me."

"What does it say?" asked Billy, re-lighting his pipe.

"I don't know that it says anything, and yet it seems to speak out quite clearly. Five or six times I've heard it, and usually on smooth days like this, when the wind's steady."

Billy nodded. "That's right, sonny; I've heard it scores of times.
And they say. . . . But, there, I don't believe a word of it."

"What do they say?"

"They say that 'tis the voice of drowned men down below, and that they hail their names whenever a boat passes."

The boy stared at the water. He knew it for a floor through which he let down his trammels and crab-pots into wonderland—a twilight with forests and meadows of its own, in which all the marvels of all the fairy-books were possible; but the terror of it had never clouded his delight.

"Nonsense, Billy; the voice I hear is always quite cheerful and friendly—not a bit like a dead man's."

"I tell what I'm told," answered Billy, and the subject dropped.

But the boy did not cease thinking about the voice; and some time after he came, as it seemed, upon a clue. His father had set him to read Shakespeare; and, taking down the first of twelve volumes from the shelf, he began upon the first play, The Tempest. He was prepared to yawn, but the first scene flung open a door to him, and he stepped into a new world, a childish Ferdinand roaming an Isle of Voices. He resigned Miranda to the grown-up prince, for whom (as he saw at a glance, being wise in the ways of story-books) she was eminently fitted. It was in Ariel, perched with harp upon the shrouds of the king's ship, that he recognised the unseen familiar of his own voyaging. "O spirit, be my friend—speak to me often!" As children will, he gave Prospero's island a local habitation in the tangled cliff-garden, tethered Caliban in the tool-shed, and watched the white surf far withdrawn, or listened to its murmur between the lordly boles of the red-currant bushes. For the first time he became aware of some limitations in Billy.

He had long been aware of some serious limitations in his nurse: she could not, for instance, sail a boat, and her only knot was a "granny." He never dreamed of despising her, being an affectionate boy; but more and more he went his own way without consulting her. Yet it was she who—unconsciously and quite as if it were nothing out of the way— handed him the clue.

A flagstaff stood in the garden on a grassy platform, half-way down the cliff-side, and the boy at his earnest wish had been given charge of it. On weekdays, as a rule he hoisted two flags—an ensign on the gaff, and a single code-flag at the mast-head; but on Sundays he usually ran up three or four, and with the help of the code-book spelt out some message to the harbour. Sometimes, too, if an old friend happened to take up her moorings at the red buoy below, he would have her code-letters hoisted to welcome her, or would greet and speed her with such signals as K.T.N., "Glad to see you," and B.R.D., or B.Q.R., meaning "Good-bye," "A pleasant passage." Skippers fell into the habit of dipping their flags to him as they were towed out to sea, and a few amused themselves while at anchor by pulling out their bags of bunting and signalling humorous conversations, though their topmasts reached so near to the boy's platform that they might with less labour have talked through a speaking-trumpet.

One morning before Christmas six vessels lay below at the buoy, moored stem to stem in two tiers of three; and, after hoisting his signal (C.P.B.H. for "Christmas Eve"), he ran indoors with the news that all six were answering with bushes of holly at their topmast heads, while one—a Danish barquentine—had rove stronger halliards and carried a tall fir-tree at the main, its branches reaching many feet above her truck.

"Christmas is Christmas," said his nurse. "When I was young, at such times there wouldn't be a ship in the harbour without its talking-bush."

"What is a talking-bush?" the boy asked.

"And you pretend to be a sailor! Well, well—not to know what happens on Christmas night when the clocks strike twelve!"

The boy's eyes grew round. "Do—the—ships—talk?"

"Why, of course they do! For my part, I wonder what Billy teaches you."

Late that evening, when the household supposed him to be in bed, the boy crept down through the moonlit garden to the dinghy which Billy had left on its frape under the cliff. But for their riding-lights, the vessels at the buoy lay asleep. The crews of the foreigners had turned in; the Nubian, of Runcorn, had no soul on board but a night-watchman, now soundly dozing in the forecastle; and the Touch-me-not was deserted. The Touch-me-not belonged to the port, and her skipper, Captain Tangye, looked after her in harbour when he had paid off all hands. Usually he slept on board; but to-night, after trimming his lamp, he had rowed ashore to spend Christmas with his family—for which, since he owned a majority of the shares, no one was likely to blame him. He had even left the accommodation-ladder hanging over her side, to be handy for boarding her in the morning.

All this the boy had noted; and accordingly, having pushed across in the dinghy, he climbed the Touch-me-not's ladder and dropped upon deck with a bundle of rugs and his father's greatcoat under his arm.

He looked about him and listened. There was no sound at all but the lap of tide between the ships, and the voice of a preacher travelling over the water from a shed far down the harbour, where the Salvation Army was holding a midnight service. Captain Tangye had snugged down his ship for the night: ropes were coiled, deckhouses padlocked, the spokes of the wheel covered against dew and frost. The boy found the slack of a stout hawser coiled beneath the taffrail—a circular fort into which he crept with his rugs, and nestled down warmly; and then for half an hour lay listening. But only the preacher's voice broke the silence of the harbour. On—on it went, rising and falling. . . .

Away in the little town the church clock chimed the quarter. "It must have missed striking the hour," thought the boy, and he peered over the edge of his shelter. The preacher's voice had ceased; but another was speaking, and close beside him.

"You'd be surprised," it said, "how simple one's pleasures grow with age. This is the twelfth Christmas I've spent at home, and I assure you I quite look forward to it: that's a confession, eh?—from one who has sailed under Nelson and smelt powder in his time." The boy knew that he must be listening to the Touch-me-not, whose keelson came from an old line-of-battle ship. "To be sure," the voice went on graciously, "a great deal depends on one's company."

"Talking of powder," said the Nubian, creaking gently on her stern-moorings, "reminds me of a terrible adventure. My very first voyage was to the mouth of a river on the West Coast of Africa, where two native tribes were at war. Somehow, my owner—a scoundrelly fellow in the Midlands—had wind of the quarrel, and that the tribe nearest the coast needed gunpowder. We sailed from Cardiff with fifteen hundred barrels duly labelled, and the natives came out to meet us at the river-mouth and rafted them ashore; but the barrels, if you will believe me, held nothing but sifted coal-dust. Off we went before the trick was discovered, and with six thousand pounds' worth of ivory in my hold. But the worst villainy was to come; for my owner, pretending that he had opened up a profitable trade, and having his ivory to show for it, sold me to a London firm, who loaded me with real gunpowder and sent me out, six months later, to the same river, but with a new skipper and a different crew. The natives knew me at once, and came swarming out in canoes as soon as we dropped anchor. The captain, who of course suspected nothing, allowed them to crowd on board; and I declare that within five minutes they had clubbed him and every man of the crew and tossed their bodies to the sharks. Then they cut my hawsers and towed me over the river-bar; and, having landed a good half of my barrels, they built and lit a fire around them in derision. I can hear the explosion still; my poor upper-works have been crazy ever since. It destroyed almost all the fighters of the tribe, who had formed a ring to dance around the fire. The rest fled inland, and I never saw them again, but lay abandoned for months as they had anchored me, between the ruined huts and a sandy spit alive with mosquitoes—until somehow a British tramp-steamer heard of me at one of the trading stations up the coast. She brought down a crew to man and work me home. But my owner could not pay the salvage; so the parties who owned the steamer— a Runcorn firm—paid him fifty pounds and kept me for their services. A surveyor examined me, and reported that I should never be fit for much: the explosion had shaken me to pieces. I might do for the coasting trade—that was all; and in that I've remained."

"Owners are rogues, for the most part," commented the Danish barquentine, rubbing against the Touch-me-nots fender as if to nudge her. "There's the Maria Stella Maris yonder can tell us a tale of the food they store us with. She went through a mutiny once, I've heard."

"I'd rather not talk of it," put in the Italian hastily, and a shudder ran through her timbers. "It's a dreadful recollection, and I have that by my mizzen-mast which all the holystone in the world can never scour."

"But I've had a mutiny, too!" said the Dutch galliot, with a voice of great importance; and this time the boy felt sure that the vessels nudged one another.

"It happened," the galliot went on, "between my skipper and his vrauw, who was to all purpose our mate, and as good a mate as ever I sailed with. But she would not believe the world was round. The skipper took a Dutch cheese and tried to explain things: he moved the cheese round, as it might be, from west to east, and argued and argued, until at last, being a persevering man, he did really persuade her, but it took a whole voyage, and by the time he succeeded we were near home again, and in the North Sea Canal. The moment she was convinced, what must the woman do but go ashore to an aunt of hers who lived at Zaandam, and refuse to return on board, though her man went on his bended knees to her! 'I will not,' she said; 'and that's flat, at any rate.' The poor man had to start afresh, undo every one of his arguments, and prove the earth flat again, before she would trust herself to travel. It cost us a week, but for my part I didn't grudge it. Your cliffs and deep-water harbours don't appeal to me. Give me a canal with windmills and summer-houses where you can look in on the families drinking tea as you sail by; give me, above all, a canal on Sundays, when the folks walk along the towing-path in their best clothes, and you feel as if you were going to church with them."

"Give me rather," said the Norwegian barque from Christiansund, "a fiord with forests running straight up to the snow mountains, and water so deep that no ship's anchor can reach it."

"I have seen most waters," the Dane announced calmly and proudly. "As you see, I am very particular about my paint, for a ship ought to keep up her beauty and look as young as she can. But I have an ice-mark around my breast which is usually taken for a proof of experience, and as a philosopher I say that all waters are tolerable enough if one carries the talisman."

"But can a ship be beautiful?" and "What is the talisman?" asked the
Italian and the Nubian together.

"One at a time, please. My dear," she addressed the Italian, "the point is, that men, whom we serve, think us beautiful indeed. It seems strange to us, who carry the thought of the forests we have left; and on warm days, when the sap awakes in us and tries to climb again, forgetting its weakness, we miss the green boughs and the moss at our feet and the birds overhead. But I have studied my reflection often enough in calm weather, and begin to see what men have in mind when they admire us."

"And the talisman?" asked the Nubian again.

"The talisman? There is no one cure for useless regret, but each must choose his own. With me it is the thought of the child after whom I was christened. The day they launched me was her first birthday, and she a small thing held in the crook of her mother's arm: when the bottle swung against my stem the wine spurted, and some drops of it fell on her face. The mother did not see me take the water—she was too busy wiping the drops away. But it was a successful launch, and I have brought the family luck, while she has brought them happiness. Because of it, and because our names are alike, her parents think of us together; and sometimes, when one begins to talk of 'Thekla,' the other will not know for a moment which of us is meant. They drink my health, too, on her birthday, which is the fourteenth of May; and you know King Solomon's verse for the fourteenth—'She is like the merchants' ships, she bringeth her food from afar.' This is what I have done while she was growing; for King Solomon wrote it for a wife, of course. But now I shall yield up my trust, for when I return she is to be married. She shall bind that verse upon her with a coral necklace I carry for my gift, and it shall dance on her white throat when her husband leads her out to open the wedding-ball."

"Since you are so fond of children," said the Touch-me-not, "tell me, what shall we do for the one I have on my deck? He is the small boy who signalled Christmas to us from the garden above; and he dreams of nothing but the sea, though his parents wish him to stick to his books and go to college."

The Dane did not answer for a moment. She was considering. "Wherever he goes," she said at length, "and whatever he does, he will find that to serve much is to renounce much. Let us show him that what is renounced may yet come back in beautiful thoughts."

And it seemed to the boy that, as she ceased, a star dropped out of the sky and poised itself above the fir-tree on her maintopmast; and that the bare mast beneath it put forth branches, while upon every branch, as it spread, a globe of fire dropped from the star, until a gigantic Christmas-tree soared from the deck away up to heaven. In the blaze of it the boy saw the miracle run from ship to ship—the timber bursting into leaf with the song of birds and the scent of tropical plants. Across the avenue of teak which had been the Nubian's bulwarks he saw the Dutchman's galley, now a summer-house set in parterres of tulips. Beyond it the sails of the Maria Stella Maris, shaken from the yards, were piling themselves into snowy mountains, their foot-ropes and braces trailing down and breaking into leaves and clusters of the vine. He heard the murmur of streams flowing, the hum of bees, the whetting of the scythes—even the stir of insects' wings among the grasses. From truck to keelson the ships were wavering, dissolving part from part into remote but unforgotten hiding-places whence the mastering adventurer had torn them to bind and yoke them in service. Divine the service, but immortal also the longing to return! "But there the glorious Lord will be unto us a place of broad rivers and streams; wherein shall go no galley with oars, neither shall gallant ship pass thereby."

The boy heard the words; but before he understood them a hand was on his shoulder, and another voice speaking above him.

"God bless us! it's you, is it? Here's a nice tale to tell your father, I must say!" He opened his eyes, and above Captain Tangye's shoulder the branches faded, the lights died out, and the masts stood stripped and bare for service against the cold dawn.