Ballast, by Arthur Thomas Quiller-Couch
Wolf and Other Fireside Tales
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
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
"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
"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