Story type: Literature
Under the green shore that faces the port, and at a point that, as the meeting-place of river and harbour, may be called indifferently by either name, lay a slim-waisted barque at anchor, with a sand-barge alongside. The time was a soft and sunny morning in early January– a day that was Nature’s breathing space after a week of sleet and boisterous winds. The gulls were back again from their inland shelters. Across the upland above the cliff a ploughman drove leisurably forth and back, and always close behind his heels the earth was white with these birds inspecting the fresh-turned furrow. The furze-bushes below him were braided with cobwebs, and the stays, lifts, and braces of the barque might have passed also for threads of gossamer spun from her masts and yards, so delicately were the lines indicated against the hillside. In the sand-barge, three men were chanting as they worked; and their song, travelling across still sky and water, rose audibly above the stir of traffic even in the narrow streets of the town.
The barque was taking in ballast; and the three men sang as they shovelled,–for three reasons. It helped them to keep time; it kept each from shirking his share of the work; and lastly, perhaps, the song cheered them. They knew it as “The Long Hundred,” and it ran–
“There goes one.
One there is gone.
Oh, the rare one!
And many more to come
For to make up the sum
Of the hundred so long.”
“There goes two–“
–and so on, up to twenty. With each line, a shovelful of ballast was pitched on board by every man; so that, when the twenty six-line stanzas were ended, each man had thrown one hundred and twenty (a “long hundred”) shovelfuls of sand. Thereupon they paused, “touched pipe” for a minute or two, and, brushing the back of the hand across their foreheads to wring off the sweat, started afresh.
Along the barque’s side ran a narrow line of blue paint, signifying that the vessel was in mourning, that somebody belonging to captain or owner was lately dead. But in this case it was the captain and owner himself: and his chief mourner was a bright-eyed woman with a complexion of cream and roses, who now leant over the bulwarks and looked down contemplatively upon the three labourers. She was a Canadian, and her husband, too, had been a Canadian–rich, more than twice her age, and luxurious. Since his marriage she had accompanied him on all his voyages. Three months ago his vessel had brought him, sick and suffering from congestion of the lungs, into this harbour, where his cargo of timber was to be unloaded: and in this harbour, a week later, he had died, without a doubt of his wife’s affection. From the deck where she stood she could see between the elms on the hill above the port the white wall of the cemetery where he lay. The vessel was hers, and a snug little fortune in Quebec: and she was going back to enjoy it. For the homeward voyage she had deputed the captain’s responsibilities to the first mate, and had raised his pay slightly, but the captain’s dignity she reserved for herself.
She wore a black gown, of course, but not a widow’s cap: and, though in fact a widow of twenty-five, had very much more the appearance of a maid of nineteen as she looked down over the barque’s side. Her lips were parted as if to smile at the first provocation. On either side of her temples a short brown curl had rebelled and was kissing her cheek. The sparkle in her eyes told of capacity to enjoy life. Behind her a coil of smoke rose from the deck-house chimney. She had left the midday meal she was cooking, and ought to be back looking after it. Instead, she lingered and looked upon the three men at work below.
Two of them were old, round-shouldered with labour, their necks burnt brown with stooping in the sun. The third was a young giant–tall, fair, and straight–with yellowish hair that curled up tightly at the back of his head, and lumbar muscles that swelled and sank in a pretty rhythm as he pitched his ballast and sang–
“There goes nine.
Nine there is gone . . .”
It was upon this man that the woman gazed as she lingered. His shirt-collar was cut low at the back, and his freckled neck was shining with sweat. She wanted him to look up, and yet she was afraid of his looking up. She wondered if he were married–“at his age,” she phrased it to herself–and, if so, what manner of wife he had. She told herself after a while that she really dreaded extremely being caught observing these three labourers; that she hated even in seeming to lose dignity. And still she bent and heard the song to the twentieth and last verse.
The young giant, when the spell was over, leant on his shovel for a moment and then reached out a hand for the cider-keg. One of his comrades passed it to him. He wiped the orifice, tilted his head back and drank as a man drinks at midday after a long morning. Some of the cider trickled down his crisp yellow beard and he shook his head, scattering the drops off. Then the keg was tilted again, and suddenly lowered as he was on the point of drinking. His eyes had encountered those of the woman on deck.
As they did so, the woman recovered all her boldness. Without in the least knowing what prompted her, she bent a little further forward and asked–
“What is your name, young man?”
“William Udy, ma’am.”
“Do you mind breaking off work for a moment and stepping up here?”
“Cert’nly, ma’am.” William Udy laid down his shovel at once.
A shiver of fear went through the young widow. Why had she asked him up? Why, on a mere impulse; because she wanted to see him closer– nothing more. What possible excuse could she give? She heard the sound of his heavy boots on the ship’s ladder: he would be before her in a moment, expecting, of course, to be set to work on some odd job or other. She cast about wildly and could think of no job that wanted doing. It was appalling: she could not possibly explain–
As has happened before now to women, her very weakness saved her in extremity. William Udy, clambering heavily over the ship’s side, found her leaning against the deck-house, with a face as white as the painted boards against which her palm rested.
“What be I to do, ma’am?” he inquired, after a pause, and then added slowly, “Beggin’ your pardon, but be you taken unwell?”
“Yes,” she panted, speaking very faintly, “I was over there–by the bulwarks, and suddenly–I felt queer–a faintness–I looked over and saw you–I called the first person I saw. I wanted help.”
William Udy was puzzled. He had not noticed any pallor in the face that had looked down on him from the ship’s side. On the contrary, he seemed to remember that it struck him as remarkably fresh and rosy. But he saw no reason for doubting he had been mistaken.
“Can I do aught for ‘ee? Fetch a doctor?”
“If you wouldn’t mind helping me down–down to my cabin–“
William took her arm gently and led her aft to the companion ladder. At the top of it she put out a hand vaguely and closed her eyes.
“I don’t think,” she murmured, “that I can walk. My head is going round so. Could you–would it be too heavy–if you carried me?”
At any other time William would have considered this a good joke. As it was he took her up like a feather in his arms and carried her down to the cabin. There he set her down on the sofa and was about to withdraw, blushing. He was a very shy youth and had never carried a woman before, let alone one who was his superior in station.
“Thank you,” she said in a voice that was little above a whisper. “How easily you carried me. It’s plain to see you’re a married man.”
William started. “There you’re wrong, ma’am, pardon me for sayin’ it.”
“No? You were so gentle: so gentle although so big”–she smiled faintly. “Would you mind stepping to the cupboard there and pouring me out a wineglassful of sherry? It’s in the decanter just inside.”
William poured out a glassful and set it on the table in front of her. She put it to her lips, and having scarcely moistened them, set it down again.
“A glass for yourself,” she said. “Come now–do! I see you are shocked at the number of bottles I keep here. But they were my husband’s. He died, you know, a week after we came into harbour.”
William’s face worked to express mute sympathy.
“It’s a fearful responsibility,” she went on, “being left alone like this with a vessel to look after, and all his property waiting over there, on the other side of the water; and I daresay the lawyers, there, waiting, too, to take advantage of me. I think it’s having all this on my mind that makes my head so giddy at times. . .”
William stood opposite to her, and thought. It is not known at what moment the brilliant idea struck him, that as a husband he might be a tower of strength to the fragile young creature on the sofa. His comrades after waiting some time for him began their chant again–
“There goes one.
One there is gone . . .”
And while they sang it William began that courtship which ended, three weeks later, in his sailing for Canada. He went as a bridegroom; or perhaps (if we must reckon him as part of the ship’s equipment), as ballast.