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.