The Talking Ships
by Arthur Thomas Quiller-Couch
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
"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
"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
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
"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
"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
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.