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.