Back o' the Moon, and Other Stories/The Pillers

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Since the first cuckoo, weeks ago, their talk had been of little but the coming of the anemones and bluebells, the pairing of the birds in hedgerow and brake and copse, and all the merry bustle of the spring of the year; so that you might have imagined that, hale men and buxom women as well as the younger sort, the posy-verses of the last Valentine's Day had left them all poetical crazy. But a little acquaintance with the good folk and their business would have instructed you how much hung for them on the chances of air and wind and dew; and you would then have watched as jealously as they for that half-hour's frost of an April night that will stiffen the sap of trees, and set wood and bark together past the power of any pilling-iron to part them.

Every year, as early as the middle of April or as late as the middle of May, they set forth in a band, and the whole village assembled to see them off. The two great waggons, packed the day before, and the pole-wain on which the long ladders trailed almost to the ground, would be had out of the sheds at the town end; and the talk and laughter of the villagers would mingle with the singing of the larks and the bleating of the lambs on the bare hillsides and all the noises of the morning. The horses would be brought out and backed into the shafts with a great clatter and stamping, and the brass discs and buckles of the harness would flash and jangle in the sun. The manes of the horses had been decked with red, blue, and white ribbons, and straw had been trimmed and plaited into their tails; and while lads frolicked and ran in and out, the smallest of the children would be held up to tie rosettes and favours to the whips. The foremost waggon was always hung round with crocks and kettles like a tinker's caravan, and to this the three or four women who were to accompany the men would mount. Good-byes would be said, handkerchiefs waved, and a man would take the head of the leading horse. The crocks and kettles would set up a clangour; the second waggon, that carried the saws and axes and boiling-irons, would fall in; and the lads would run behind the long wain, swinging on the ladders that rocked up and down like a rantipole. So they would pass between the dewy hawthorn hedges, and at the turn of the road, where the wheels were clogged to drop down the hill, the village would lose sight of them for maybe three weeks or a month.

Sometimes they pilled (or “barked,” as some call it) for others, being then paid by the day or contract, sometimes they bought the bark themselves to sell again to the tanners; and when the timber was not to come down at once they left the stripped trees, naked and white and ghostly, to stand for another year that the sap might retire and the tree season as it stood. While the men worked in the woods, the women cooked and mended, plied the pilling-irons on the smaller branches, stacked the bark into light sheds, and perchance plaited osiers or wove straw basses for beehives meanwhile. Sometimes they slept in inns and farm-kitchens, and sometimes barns and sheds were prepared against their coming.

After this fashion they came, on a May afternoon, to the Ladyshaws Wood, that belongs to the township of Portsannet under the headland; and from the height several of them saw, for the first time in their lives, the sea. The warden of Portsannet and his bailiff grow the oaks of the Ladyshaws wide and spreading, for tough, crooked pieces for the knees and ribs of ships; and in the higher wood the columns of the pines are crowded together to make the taller masts. Two score of them, oaks and pines, had been marked to come down, and the placid bailiff, red-faced, and smoking very strong tobacco, had first taken the Pillers round the woods, and then shown them their accommodation, a small cluster of barns and a penthouse that had once been a smithy. They made a fire that night on the disused forge-hearth; and as they sat about it they told one another how fair and settled the air was, and how grandly the Ladyshaws were golding, and spoke of the sea and ships, and of the sea-worm that bores the oak, and of bark and tanning and markets and prices. Soft clouds lay low to the earth; scents and odours, now from the pine woods, now from the hawthorn hedges, and again the whiff of Portsannet and the sea, drifted in tracts on the mild air; and if now and then a man winked at his neighbour and said something about a pheasant or an egg, it was no such great matter after all. They sought their blankets early; the retriever bitch and the two terriers stretched themselves across the thresholds of the sheds; and the whole company slept long before moonrise.


High in the dark laithe the four women lay on the top of a half-cut stack; and Jessie Wheeler had avoided the corner immediately under the great square hole that yawned in the floor of the loft overhead. Instead, she had spread her blanket near a small vent-hole that had been made by the leaving out of a wall-stone. Against this aperture she could barely distinguish the shape of her arm as the tips of her fingers touched the floor only a couple of feet above her. The women had taken off only their upper garments; and the niche where they lay smelt of stale hay, and the trusses crackled and whispered with each of their movements.

A short harsh call outside startled her, and she raised herself on her elbow to listen. The call was repeated; and then there stole on the May night a series of long liquid notes. A nightingale had begun to sing in the thorn hedge. The sound ceased, and the notes seemed to take flight and diminish and die away. She waited. Again came the low liquid call, and broke into trills that increased in volume. Another long pause left the air trembling; and then, as if by the giving way of some barrier, the full flood of song gushed like a torrent from the bird's throat. The piercing melody filled the night; it mounted and hovered and rang under the low clouds, as if under rafters; it spread to the woods and out over the headland; and Jessie's heart lifted, and her lips shaped the name of Willie Ramsey.

To poets the nightingale might sing of unattainable things; to Jessie it sang only of Willie—Willie had all. The torrent of melody filled the dark loft where she lay with memories and images only of Willie; and she closed her eyes in bliss as the bird sang ever louder and clearer.

What the beginning had been she could hardly have told. They had sought the nuts and blackberries together, and watched the trout in the shallow brook, and popped the bags of the foxgloves. They had played and kissed and wrangled; and he, too, with the other lads, had twisted the stalks of the pulling-grass into her hair, and pointed at her for her outbursts of passion.... Perhaps her hair had been the beginning. Once the children had plaited chaplets of green leaves for their hair, and on hers Willie had set the leaves of the copper beech, and laughed that hair and leaves should be of one colour. Long after, she had set her hair in a coil above her white nape; and when someone had again made sport of this, in place of the fit of temper had come quick tears.... The memories came faster as the bird sang ecstatically—of the season when their companionship had seemed, like Willie's calf-voice, all broken and here and there; of the day when she had fashioned the straw mell-doll for the corner of the last stack, and the farm men had laughed, and jested at her “babe,” and Willie had seen her miserable flush ... and then of the evening in the milking-shed when he had so kissed her that it had seemed wonderful they could ever have kissed before as boy and girl. In spite of her passionateness, then, he had loved her.... From the yard came the sound of a horse's stamping, and the dragging of the chain and the munching at the crib; she heard it even through the song. A faint light glimmered in the vent-hole—the moon had broken for a moment through the soft clouds, and the nightingale sang as though the hand of a man had seized him and were crushing the heart within him....

And so they had become lovers, and had been so for well-nigh a year. The moon became clouded again; the bird's song changed to lovely aching notes, that somehow Jessie could hardly bear; and her hand stole to her breast and sought the little gold locket that contained the tiny ring of hair that Willie's mother had cut from him while yet he was scarcely bigger than the mell-doll.


The morning star shone over the sea, and the first cock crowed down in Portsannet. The nightingale ceased to sing. The moon still rode high among the clouds; but a breeze came from the east, and a greyness and lifting altered the air. The cocks made an increasing din. A splendour of rose and gold, in the midst of which the sun burned like a brazier, turned the vault to an ineffable blue, and flushed the tops of the Ladyshaws. And as the earliest of the Pillers to rise trudged down the meadows for water, he saw that a man-o'-war, under half canvas, stood motionless beyond the headland. He stopped to watch the men who moved about her like ants, and saw the little fleck of white as she dropped anchor.


The woods resounded with the calling of the men, the hacking of the grub-axe at roots, the clash of irons flung down, and the ceaseless snapping and crackle of the undergrowth. The wide spaces that had been cleared for the fall of the oaks were trampled and trodden, mould and bluebells and the dead brown bracken; and hazel and thorn and dark holly were speckled white as if with cuckoo-spit where the bill-hooks had shorn through them. Now and then men, stacking the brushwood about the clearings, peered into it for eggs and nests; and the frightened birds fluttered continually here and there, refusing to leave their young.

At the gnarled oak that stood lowest down the slope of the wood Willie Ramsey and Jerry Holmes were already at work with the great-axe. They swung alternately, and the white chips lay thick over their boots, and the deep notch, that was rapidly becoming deeper, made the tree look as if it was balanced on a blunt apex. A few yards beyond the flying chips lay the great double saw, a tin of grease for easing it, and a coil of rope; and Jerry's wrinkled face twitched into wonderful folds and creases as he delivered each blow. As again, for the tenth time, the thought of the forenoon drinking that the women would bring occurred to him, he grunted “Spell,” dropped the head of his axe, and leaned on the heft to recover his breath.

“Ye look thirsty, too, my lad,” he observed by and by, glancing up at Willie.

Willie passed his fingers across his brow and looked at them all wet. He was tall, black-browed, and black-haired, and his neck lifted at his chest with his breathing, and the muscles of his forearm started sharply as his fingers played on the heft of his axe.

“Ay, this ought to be grand stuff for ribs, if th' chopping of it's aught to reckon by,” he answered.

“Nay, ye're limber enow; 'tis owd bones like me it finds out,” quoth Jerry, grinning. “'Tis th' season o' life wi' ye to think more o' th' women nor th' drink they bring. I ken your ways; but me, I'm naughbut rare and thirsty.”

“Well, maybe I'se mend o' that.”

“Ay, Jessie 'll mend ye, if ye're mendable. Ye may laugh; ginger's for game, and al'ays was——

“They ken best where th' shoe pinches that has it on, Jerry.”

“Ay, when they get it on; thou'rt not shod yet, lad.—Well, wisdom's wasted o' youth; let's to th' ribs an' knees again—— Spell——

They turned to with the axes again.

Somewhere up the wood a man was setting a hone to a bill-hook, and away to the right they had begun to chop at another tree. Willie and Jerry were well ahead, and nowhere were they sawing yet; and as the chips started and flew, and the keen axes cut deeper and deeper into the bole, and Jerry's mouth and eyebrow flickered and dipped, they began to pass round the tree and to cut more carefully here and there. A whiff of strong tobacco came down the glade, and the placid bailiff stood and watched them.

“Ye'll be almost ready for th' ropes and cross-cut,” he remarked, “and then there'll be one on 'em down.—Eh, they must ha' seen some scenes, must these oaks! Ay, they must.—Are ye acquainted wi' these parts? No, say ye? Eh, things has happened i' this neighbourhood, hundreds o' years back. It were off th' Head, yonder, that Paul Jones fought, that ye 'll ha' heard tell of.—No! Well, that's surprising!”

He continued to talk in his mild, easy way, telling them his story of Paul Jones; and, by and by, Willie shouted out loud, “Skipjack!” A call up the wood answered him.

“Skipjack” was Charlie Dodd. He came, an ungainly youth with a long neck, a back shaped like a lad's kite by reason of his sloping shoulders, and enormous hands and wrists.

“Nay, don't hang yoursel',” the bailiff observed as Charlie passed a loop of rope about his neck; and Jerry and Willie hoisted him up to a bough.

Dead bark and twigs and tree-scurf came down as the Skipjack swung from branch to branch; and he made fast the loop to a high fork, gave a grimace and shout, and came down it in three perilous-looking swings, his especial feat. Jerry smeared the great cross-cut with grease, and they set it into the notch. The sun shone warmly through the bare branches, and the ruddy oak-apples made a rich colour against the sky. Sawdust lodged in the folds of the clothing of the two men as they bent their backs to the cross-cut, and the birds cried more and more loudly. They were chopping in several places at once now, and from the top of another tree the Skipjack gave another shout. Now and then Willie and Jerry loosened the saw and rested, their faces crimson; and the bailiff mused among the oaks and told over again the story of Paul Jones. Then Willie and Jerry set the saw aside; the tree was ready for the fall; and men ran from here and there, and gathered round the oak, and took the rope and set the huge tree gently rocking on its base. The tree-scurf descended on them, and the birds made a piteous clamour. Willie ran in with a wedge; the tree tottered, hung for a moment beyond its point of balance, and then gave a long groan and twisted slowly. Men sprang for safety as it came over. There was a rushing and breaking of branches, the fibres burst with a loud crack, the boughs whipped out dangerously, and the tree left a great white blade like that of a sword standing a yard up from the butt. They stood back for a minute, as men stand back from the dying body of a formidable beast; then they ran in and set to work with saws and axes in half a dozen places at once. While some sawed and lopped its branches, Willie and Jerry marked the trunk into six-foot lengths and took the cross-cut again. Soon the women brought the morning ale; and then the pilling and bolling irons, like spoons with a solid bowl, were got out.

Fat Maggie had brought a straw hassock, and as she sat wide-lapped on it and worked her pilling-iron the points of her elbows were redder than her red arms. Nan and Jennie Holmes, Jerry's wife and daughter, sat in a litter of brushwood, and Jennie's face worked like her father's as she cut the slashes with a knife and thrust in the iron. The sun caught Jessie Wheeler's hair as she sat in the brown bracken with her skirts tucked close about her ankles; and now and then she glanced across to where Willie thrust at the noisy cross-cut. The air became fragrant with the smell of sawdust and the sharp odour of the new green timber, and the sap glistened in bright films and webs as the bark parted from the white wood. The piles of the smaller bark accumulated about the women, and the white-stripped twigs and billets turned a pale buff in an hour. The creak and rush of another falling tree came from up the wood. Fat Maggie clapped her black hands to her ears as a man began to set a saw immediately behind her; and Willie's oak lay in three great sections, the middle one of which had rolled to one side.

The easy-going bailiff came up again as Jerry stooped to examine the face of the butt section. “What is it?” he said; and Jerry pointed at something. Willie took a bar and rolled the middle section away; and all three of them stooped again to the cut.

“If that's a ring-shake——” Jerry began; but the bailiff rubbed his hands and beamed.

“It isn't a ring-shake; I'll lay I know what it is. Look you! saw this slice clean out, here.”

Other men gathered round and watched them saw a three-inch slice out of the tree. The saw polished the heart of the oak like marble, and a foot or so within the bark, and three or four inches in length, a curious mark showed. The bailiff took an axe and chopped into the flat disc; then he took up the disc and one of the fragments.

“Well!” he said, his mild face radiant, “I wouldn't ha' missed that for a crown! I've heard tell of 'em, too! D'ye see?”

Buried in the heart of the tree, and fitting together like a die and matrix, were two letters, an M and a V. They had been cut long ago in the wood itself, and had become overgrown with the newer wood, but had never healed. Men called to one another, and all pressed for a sight of the marvel. Jessie's head rested for a moment against Willie's shoulder, and his hand sought hers as the pieces were passed from hand to hand; and soon the bailiff said, “I'se take these home,” and put them into his pocket.

The women fetched the dinner at midday, and, after it, Willie and Jessie sat apart in a little copse of hazels. A lean-to of thick base-bark screened them from the others, and the green tassels of the hazels dangled over them. His fingers strayed in her rich hair; as she smiled up at him the corners of her mouth were dewy as the sap that glistened under the rind of the great oaks. Nellie, the retriever bitch, blinked drowsily at them both.

“It's no deeper nor I ha' for thee,” she whispered by and by, as if he knew without telling what she spoke of.

“What, dear?”

“Th' tree,” she murmured; and again he caressed her burnished hair.

“Only ten days and we'se be home,” he said, presently; “shall ye be glad, Jess?”

“Yes, love; there's no comfort wi' yon sea all about ye, like as if something were al'ays watching ye. I'd sooner meet thee aback o' th' little lambing-shed at home o' th' hill. An' when we're back I'se mak' thee a dozen shirts wi' my wages, dear——

Willie laughed. “And what shall we gi'e her, Nellie?” he asked the retriever; and the animal moved her tail lazily, hearing her name. Soon they heard stirrings behind the hazel copse; the women began to pack up tins and dishes; and Jerry's voice called, “Where's my mate?” The men scattered again about the clearings. Again the wood became noisy with the chop of the axe, the knock of the iron, and the hoarse voice of the saw. The huge sections, stripped of their thick rinds, lay white on the bracken. White faggots gleamed against the tan of the inner bark, against the pink-budding thorn and the slate-purple brambles and the quick green of the hazels and elders. The men made another spell of half-an-hour late in the afternoon; and when the sunset gun boomed sullenly from the ship off the Head, they covered the irons and saws and axes with sacking, hid them under a stack of brushwood, and turned their faces towards the sheds for supper.


Dim riding-lights twinkled down in Portsannet Harbour, and a few swinging oil lanterns crowded the narrow streets with dense shadows. Threads of light came through cracks of barred and shuttered windows, and the rusty glimmerings of the horn lanterns that hung in antique iron brackets on the angles of houses showed the short flights of cobbled steps and the precipitous ladders of wood that seemed to tumble from one level of the streets to another. The strong odour of dead fish, brine, tarred nets, and groynes and timbers half rotted by the sea-worms, lay over the town; and incessant tuggings and gruntings, with over all the sigh and rustle of the sea, came from the smacks and keels and cobles that moved at their moorings.

From an alley down by the bridge a harsh clamour broke out, and half a mile away you could distinguish the shouts and oaths and cries. It was down by the bridge that the sailors' taverns and kitchens lay, and the men who sat snug by their own firesides nodded, as much as to say they had expected it. They knew that Portsannet was not a quota-port; but they knew also that the lieutenants of His Majesty's ships did not stick at niceties when the gun-deck complement ran low, and they had been wary of a press as soon as the ship had dropped anchor. And so the bolts had been shot, and the cumbrous bars set into the staples; as for the “Mermaid” and the “Anchor,” the press was welcome to the tinkers and rogues and gipsies they would find there with the women.

Jews and water-side men and sellers of old copper and iron and cordage kept the shops adjacent to the “Mermaid” and “Anchor,” and such among them as had no dread of the press were gathered with three or four women about the closed door of the “Mermaid.” Half a dozen unkempt sailors, with cudgels and stretchers, thrust them back, keeping the door; and the shrill cries of the women and the gruff voices of the men filled the narrow alley. From an upper window opposite the inn a ship's chandler shook his fist; and a score of yards away a few men peered round corners, ready to take to their heels. A bony virago, who had been cast half drunk from the tavern, screamed at the men-o'-war's men in the fishwives' tongue; and a coxswain with a tarred hat pushed her back continually as she ever advanced.

“See you're not taken, you scald trull!” he menaced her; “you lack little but a beard o' being a man, and we have two bonnie Lord-Mayor's men you could berth between!”

“Ay, ye damned tarrybreeks, ye women i' petticoats; what th' jails turns out th' gun-deck doesn't mak' dainty wi', ye——!”

“Dainty, ho, ho!” another bawled; “chuck, chuck, come wi' me, dainty——!”

“Yah, ye rascals!” the chandler shouted from his window, “ye rotten mast-greasing rogues—ye captain's chicken-crammers—wi' a red-checked shirt at th' gratings once a month——

He cursed them, and they taunted him for his stolen tallow and canvas, and bade him stop hammering the King's arrow out of copper bolts and untwisting the coloured strand that marked his cordage as filched from the King's dockyards. The rakish woman broke a window with a stone, and cried through the opening, “Ned! Ned!” and the coxswain thrust her back with his hand on her flat breast, and took her a rap over the knuckles. The men handled their stretchers as if they would as lief have broken a head or two as not.

Suddenly the inn door opened, and there was a press forward. A lieutenant appeared in the entrance, his cocked hat athwart like a half-moon and his hooked nose sticking out scarcely less prominently as he turned his profile. Other men could be seen behind him, and the woman darted forward with a cry of “Ned!”

“Turn that slut off!” the lieutenant ordered curtly; and he grumbled to himself: “A pretty lot o' cattle to pink! I want men with bodies!—We'll try the Wood, then.... Here, you long rascal: in case you're deceiving me, do you know what they keep on a ship in a red-baize bag?”

The fellow the woman had addressed as Ned snivelled, and the chandler across the alley cried, “That's him that robs th' roosts! Feel in his pocket for handkerchiefs——!”

“You don't, eh? Well, it makes your back black—black, like dead liver, d'you hear? And some have chosen hanging before a flogging with it. If it isn't as you say in the Wood, that's your choice, too, my man!”

The man blubbered in his fear: “It's so, captain. There's one fellow swings down a tree on a rope, a right sailor for you—Skipjack they call him—there's a two-three sheds, wi' a long pole-wain——

“Bring those other tinkers out, coxswain; they shall go with us. Which way?—Back, you woman!”

The chandler screamed, hanging half out of his window: “Yah, ye walking fever! Ye'd sell a real man to save your skin, would ye? But ye'll go yet for a sessions-bird! Choose th' hanging afore th' red check—save up your rum and tak' it drunk——

“Fling a stone at that man, somebody,” the officer said.

The “Mermaid” emptied itself into the street—a score or so of the men of the press, seven or eight wretched vagrants, and one or two of the sailors' doxies who had remained in hiding. A few of the seamen slung their lanterns on their cudgels; the whole company moved; and, as they passed to the harbour front, candles and heads appeared in windows, and groans and hootings followed them. They turned up the main street; the sailors thwacked their miserable captives as they failed to make haste enough up the cobbled steps and timber stairways; one or two of the women dropped behind, breathless; and at the top of the street the Portsannet folk stayed and watched the men of the press take the road that led to the Ladyshaws.


Jessie Wheeler slept soundly in the niche on top of the hay. The nightingale on the thorn was silent, and the embers of the fire on the hearth in the penthouse had sunk to a grey wood ash, that only now and then the light breeze fanned to a faint pink glow. The clouds were close folded overhead; hardly a whisper came from the Ladyshaws. Nellie and the two terriers slept across the thresholds, and with a last soft settling the fire itself seemed to go to sleep.

The retriever heard the noise first, and, suddenly alert, dropped to the down-charge. The terriers set their heads and fore feet low, and growled softly. A man asleep in a shed muttered mechanically, “Quiet!” and turned over. From the brow at the bottom of the meadows came the sound of voices and of a moving company; and then the voices dropped, but the moving came nearer. The terriers broke suddenly into a hubbub of barking; and Jessie woke, and started and trembled.

Jerry Holmes, without his boots, came out of the shed with a lantern; it showed the furrows of his own face, but not the forms that were approaching. They had muffled their lanterns about with coats and handkerchiefs, and the shrouding of one had been done with a spotted neckerchief that showed dabbled with a dusky pattern. Jerry knew no more than that honest men do not wander about the country at night, a score in a band, with doused lanterns; and he gave a shout of “Up, lads!” The terriers barked furiously; the shout was answered by a score of voices; the cloths were twitched off the lanterns; and the press and the seven or eight pressed rushed forward. Jerry, for all he was inland, knew what it was, and his hand tightened on a mattock that all at once he seemed to find in his grasp without being able to tell how he had come by it.

In the big barn doorway the Skipjack and Willie Ramsey appeared. They, too, had caught up what lay nearest to hand—Charlie, the crooked iron handle of some machine, and Willie a breadth of a split lid with a batten across it full of bent nails. There were no doors to the barn, and behind these three other faces peered out anxiously. Old Jerry muttered, “Nay, this is no good; we're done afore we start”; and he thought of the axes that lay under the brushwood in the Ladyshaws.

“That's the Skipjack, him wi' th' crook; what did I tell ye?” a tall fellow, bound, cried appealingly to a man with a hooked nose and a blue coat with white facings. “And him wi' th' black hair's Willie something—he were back of a hazel bush wi' a lass—it's true what I say——

“Close in and seize them,” the lieutenant ordered. “Creep along the wall, one or two of you, and the rest rush in.”

“Ay, that's th' road,” Jerry muttered again, bitterly; “well, we'll ha' one knock——

And, indeed, there could be but one end to it; the plight was hopeless. The short scuffle barely lasted two minutes. A stretcher cracked across Jerry's shins and he went down; at the very first stroke that Willie struck, his batten nailed itself fast to a cudgel, and, having no handle, was wrenched from his hand; and the Skipjack's crank, having a wooden case for the grip, twirled uselessly this way and that. They struck with their hands, but were overborne and rolled over with their assailants, and the sailors leaped over them as they rolled, and poured into the barn. Half of them had not even their boots on, but desperate grunts and scuffles sounded inside the dark sheds. Jerry, his arms already secured, was crouched up against a wall, his head bowed almost to his injured shins. The Skipjack lay near him with the breath knocked out of him; and as Willie Ramsey lay flat on his belly with a heavy knee in his back he suddenly made a “Tss, Nell!” between his teeth, and the retriever fastened herself to the officer's hand. The lieutenant gave a cry and an oath with the pain, and then he drew and shortened his sword and ran the retriever through the body.

Suddenly Willie shouted in a loud voice, “Bide where ye are, Jessie!” and at that the informer pressed nearer to the lieutenant.

“Ay, they ha' some women wi' em, four of 'em, but I don't know where they are——

“Curse 'em,” snarled the officer, wringing the dark blood from his hand; “where there's women there's men. Rout 'em out.”

A dozen men were already at the door of the laithe. Suddenly they fell back, and the informer, raising himself on his toes, cried, “Ay, her wi' red hair; wasn't it true what I told ye, captain?...”

Her arms were white and bare to the short shift that showed at her shoulders, and her brown hands fumbled at her waist. Her hair lay in a heavy mass half down her back, and her boots were thrust on unlaced. Her mouth was open, and her eyes shifted rapidly, seeking Willie. She saw him, and made a little shuffling run, her boots slipping; and a sailor barred her way and glanced at the officer for orders.

The lieutenant advanced and peered into her face.

“Wife? ... Ah, sweetheart!” His eyes rested on the gold locket at her naked bosom. He put out his hand to touch it, and Willie cried in a low, husky voice, “Man, loose my hands ... gi'e me my billet o' wood and tak' your sword ... or wi' my naked hands——

Jessie dropped to her knees and seized the officer's hand. He drew it away with a sharp exclamation.

“Oh, 'tis blood!” she cried.—“Nay, I didn't mean to hurt thee, sir, but dinna tak' him! Let me bind thy hand, i' pity and friendliness, and dinna tak' him! A handkercher and some watter—see, let me cleanse it and heal it wi' herbs and draw th' foulness out wi' my mouth. But poor wood-folk we are, fro' th' inland parts, and harm none, but pill th' trees i' springtime, ask th' bailiff else.... He's my lad, and 'll wed me this back-end, and 'll ha' th' farm when his father's ta'en—nay, I sorrow to see thee bleed so!—and thou's ha' my prayers every night....”

His blood had dripped to her own naked arms, and then, all at once, she saw the dead retriever. Her mouth went round as an O with horror. Still kneeling, she sank back till she had to put one hand behind her for support; and she breathed softly, “Oh—Nellie!” The next moment she was up on her feet, quivering and ugly with passion.

“Ay?” she cried in a high voice, “Ay? Th' dog too? Let's see thee, Nell.—Ay, right through; th' dog, too! They tak' their swords to dogs, gentlemen does; cocked hats and lace on 'em, they kill dogs. Tak' her and wash her, Maggie, for me to bury: and ye ken herbs.—Did I touch yon man's hand that kills dogs?—Ye ken herbs: tell me o' one that keeps wounds oppen, and lets 'em drain, and sets a venom i' 'em so they shriek at th' sight o' watter, dog-killers, and slaver at their cruel mouths through their teeth that's locked i' torment——

“Oh, come away, Jessie!” Maggie implored, seizing her arms.

“A sword! Ay, a sword to a dog, but a man wi' his bare hands is bound fast wi' cords——

“Do you know who you're wreaking this on?” said the lieutenant, in a smothered voice; “not on me, my lass!——” His voice changed, and he cried abruptly, “Come, stir; do we need a whole night for a bare dozen capstan-pushers? Fall in! Gag that whining pickpocket! Form 'em up, coxswain! Ready?”

“Ye'd best tak' th' dog's tongue,” Jessie cried, “chance another gentleman boasts he's killed him. Lend me thy sword while I cut it out!”

“By God, your own ought to be cut out, you red witch!—Faugh!—Up, men!”

“Ay, forward; I'm walking Portsannet way mysel'; I've a dead dog to show folk; me and Nellie's for Portsannet!—Come, poor lass.”

She took the dead retriever up in her arms. The women strove to restrain her, but she answered them in a hard voice; and the hook-nosed lieutenant, grinding his teeth as she railed, was yet unable to keep his eyes from her throat and shoulders. She saw it, and laughed shrilly, and made a display of the bare arms that held the dog for him. He swore a filthy oath under his breath; Fat Maggie and Jerry's wife and daughter wept; the men's faces were hard set; and the two terriers leaped and barked about the lieutenant as Jessie clucked them on with her tongue and asked him where his sword was. They set forward down the meadows; a dim ring of orange showed where the moon swam behind the clouds; and as they left the meadows and began the descent to the valley the coxswain stepped back to Jessie, who was heaping taunt on taunt, and said, “Let it alone—ye're but making it worse for him....”


The news had spread in Portsannet, and many of the decent fisherfolk had joined the common sort at the head of the street. They murmured, but it was little of their business, after all. Had any of their own kin been seized, they might have resisted; as it was, Portsannet was well rid of a rogue or two; and as for the Pillers, they, too, were in a sort vagrants. True, when a red-haired, slipshod, unkempt wench appeared, holding a dead retriever bitch in her arms, they wondered, and some called her a hussy; but others, looking again, cried that it was a shame. But a dead dog was not a deal to make a trouble about, and what they would be gladdest to see was the stern of the longboat that was fastened down by the jetty.

And why did Jessie, with her lover pinioned and about to be reft from her, take his case less passionately than that of the cold and heavy animal? She could not have told you. Maybe her mind could comprehend only the small evil; or, as men in moments of stress will occupy themselves with foolish, trivial things, an instinct bade her hold the unbearable thought away from her. Likely enough it was this last; for, suddenly seeing Willie's haggard eyes on her, she cried, faintly: “Dinna look at me now, or 'twill be th' last! Turn thy face away! And ye—some o' ye—show me where th' bailiff lives——

A woman took her own shawl and set it over her shoulders. “Dinna shame us, lassie,” she said; and “Ay, ay—where d'ye say he lives?” Jessie replied.

“Best tak' her to our spare cham'er, Ellen,” a man's voice said; but Jessie called again for the bailiff: he was a harmless man, wi' a pleasant word for folk; his oaks and pines were but half cut; nay, they had not started with the pines....

“I'll tak' ye to th' bailiff, dearie. Come, then,” said the woman who had given her the shawl; and suddenly Jessie began to tremble. Without glancing once at Willie, she crossed to the narrow entry of a passage, laid down the dog's body, and then turned to the woman. “Come, make haste,” she said. She passed the lieutenant without seeming to see him. The two women turned into a dark lane that was deep rutted with carts, as if it led to a farm. By and by Jessie began to run.

Through a bare orchard a candle shone in the bailiff's window. They found him in his comfortable kitchen smoking his strong tobacco. The two pieces of wood he had brought from the Ladyshaws lay on the table before him, and with the point of his penknife he was counting the rings of the tree's growth. “A hundred and ninety-six—a hundred and ninety-seven—a hundred and ninety-eight,” he said, counting aloud; and when he got to the two hundredth ring he stuck the point of his penknife into the wood and looked up mildly and enquiringly.

Jessie's railing was past now; she thought no more of Nellie.

“They're taking th' men—th' press—that's cutting the trees; they're taking 'em down th' street now,” she announced shortly; “go stop 'em.”

“Men?” the bailiff enquired, quite unruffled: “Oh, ay, the Pillers. I remember ye were with 'em. Dear, dear, now; that's awk'ard. Two more days o' this weather and the leaves'll be breaking out everywhere. We shall lose the price o' the bark—wi'out we could prosecute for it—no—now that's vexing.... Ye'd see this piece of oak this morning? Of course. I've counted two hundred; think o' that! Two hundred year sin' them letters were cut, and more to count yet.”

“But they're taking 'em—Willie and Jerry,” Jessie murmured, dazed. “Like enow ye wouldn't know Willie's name—it were him cut them pieces for ye.... Oh, man!” she cried suddenly, “he's my lover—chance ye're wed yoursel'——

“Eh?” said the bailiff; “No.”

“Oh, think, wi' your talk o' two hundred year—happen lovers cut them marks, same as ye've cut a lass's name on a tree!”

“Them that I heard tell of was King's marks,” the bailiff mused, “but ay, happen this would be some lad——

Jessie dropped face foremost on the table, and the fisherwoman spoke sharply.

“Come out o' your moon-trances, Matthew Hudson!” she cried; “think what can be done. They'll up anchor in a couple of hours wi' th' turn o' th' tide.—Wad th' Warden stop 'em?”

Jessie moaned softly on the table, and the bailiff deliberated.

“Ay—no—there's no knowing; the Warden might.”

“Then put th' horse i' the trap, ye daft fool, and tak' us ower!” the woman cried, losing her temper.

And as the bailiff set his pieces of wood aside with a sigh, he murmured, “Me wed? No——

In ten minutes the trap was ready, and the bailiff started the horse at a walk down the rutted lane.

“Give me them reins, ye fat oaf!” Ellen exclaimed. “D'ye think to-morrow 'll do for this?”

She shook up the horse, and the trap rocked and jolted. She made a cut with the whip as they reached the street; but Jessie, her face buried in the shawl, saw nothing of the throng a couple of score yards away.

“He trots better nor he gallops,” the bailiff suggested mildly, as they turned into another miry lane.

Soon Ellen passed the reins to the bailiff and set her arm about Jessie's swaying, jolting body. She turned back a corner of the shawl to say in her ear, “'Twill be all right yet, dearie! Come, be easy, now.”

Before them, where the road wound round the headland, spread the impenetrable blackness of the sea. A sharp turn showed lights half a mile ahead, a little way up the hill; and as they drew nearer the bailiff remarked, as if the fact were not without interest, “He's up, for a wonder; I'd have laid a crown he'd gone to bed.”

He pulled up at a wooden gate that had neither lodge nor avenue. One end of the large house a little way up the hill was brightly lighted.

“Lean on my shoulder, lassie,” Ellen said. “And you, Matthew, just step as if ye knew what ye'd come about.”

They passed up the treeless drive, and at a dark side door the bailiff rang a bell. A servant appeared with a candle, the bailiff said a few words, and they were shown into a small office with a desk and ledgers and tin boxes. The servant left the candle on the desk, and they waited.

In five minutes a heavily-built, grave-looking, elderly man appeared in the doorway. He looked first at one, then at another of the three, and, finally, he turned to the bailiff.

“What's the meaning of this, Hudson?” he demanded.

The bailiff glanced at Ellen and murmured, “Ay, 'tis late—past eleven—half-past eleven, I should say——

“I'll tell ye th' meaning of it, sir,” Ellen said, abruptly. “They'll be off afore Matthew's done looking for his wits i' th' candle-flame.” She told him how eight or nine unoffending landsmen, going quietly about their trade, had been seized for service on the gun-deck of the third-rater that lay off Portsannet Head.

“Well?” said the Warden; and Matthew removed his eyes from the flame of the candle.

“Ay,” he said. “It's them that's pilling up at Ladyshaws, and the question is, sir, in two days the sap 'll be set and ye'll lose the price o' the bark. Wi' them off and away, an action would never lie. The best ye could do would be to seize the odd day's pilling.”

“I know this woman; who's the other?”

“Nay, I'm sure I can't tell ye,” the bailiff replied; and then, at a touch from Ellen, Jessie let the shawl slip from her head, and looked at the grave face of the Warden. She did not speak. Quietly, as quietly as if she had been at her own bedside, she sank to her knees and folded her hands. She closed her eyes, and the Warden looked on her with knitted brows for a moment, and then began to walk up and down the small apartment.

“I think I see,” he said, by and by, stopping before Jessie, and taking her hand and raising her. “I passed Edward my word,” he continued, half to himself, “on condition our own people were unmolested. That I can't withdraw, not even on the plea that these are in my own employ. But I'll do what I can. Follow me.”

He led the way along a dark passage, and at the end of it drew a curtain aside. A soft glow of light spread about them. “Go in that door,” the Warden said, pushing Jessie gently forward; and Jessie found herself in a dining-room where half a dozen candles in silver sticks stood over their own still images in a polished table. “There's the Commander himself,” said the Warden.

A white-haired gentleman, in a rich uniform of blue, white, and gold, sat at one corner of the shining-table. A decanter of wine stood at his elbow, the breaking of the soft light through which dyed the white ruffle at his wrist with ruby red. He was looking at a watch that he held in his hand, and Jessie knew not what beauty it was in his face that seemed to steal like a comforting balsam over her heart. The Warden crossed and spoke in a low voice to him, and presently he looked up from his watch. At a sign from him Jessie stood forward, and Ellen and the bailiff fell back.

“What is your name?” he asked her, in a very gentle voice; and when she had told him, “Where do you live?” he asked again. She told him that, too; and then he began to ask her many questions. What brought her so far from her home? Of what sort were her friends? What her daily life?—She answered all very tremblingly; she felt that there could be no passion in this man's presence; and by and by he knew all about Willie and Jerry and Fat Maggie and the fatal journey that had given her her first sight of the sea.

“Come nearer, my maid.—And so you have but now seen the sea and a ship?”

“Ay, sir, to my sorrow.”

“So?” answered the stately gentleman. “Ah, women, women, never one of you yet but dreaded the sea!—Tell me, Henry: is it that they know the sea is more powerful than they? Do they know the dream that we, we others, dream—the discontent that lies in all achievement, the urge? ... And not the youth only; the old man, too, is drawn from the chimney-corner, as I am drawn—as I must go even now with the turn of the tide.—Well, I had my choice, and twice or thrice I have warmed my hands at a fire that glows on no husband's hearth. Perhaps I shall do so once more, and so die content. For marrying some, but we others are for the sea, the dream, the unrest....” He mused, and Jessie wondered if the face of a saint could be more beautiful than that on which her eyes were fixed.

“Well, that is my destiny, not another's,” he resumed by and by.—“My child, have they told you why the acorn is set in the ground, and tended and fostered till it becomes a tree, and then dies, as we all die, to a nobler service?”

Jessie did not reply, not rightly understanding him; and the white-haired commander, putting his fingers into the pocket of his waistcoat, drew out two acorns. He considered them as they lay in the palm of his hand.

“Heart o' the oak, that holds it all for us, for us others—the rest we scorned in our youth, the boundless sea, the endeavour that must be its own reward, the pleasantness of life foregone.... It may be that we chose ignorantly, blindly; perhaps we have doubted since, doubted but it had been better to choose the shelter of the rafters and the woman at our side and the little ones ... no matter. Twice or thrice, and once more under God's pleasure.... Girl, I come ashore but thrice in ten years, and there are hardly ten of years now remaining to me. For thirty years I have carried acorns in my pocket, and have planted them when opportunity came, and have seen tall oaks of my own planting. And your woodsmen come in the season and cut them down, and they are bolted together to be the houses of some of us—our hearths, homes, lodging, we others who have chosen it so.... Think of it when you see your lover set his hand to the axe, and when you feel his arms about you in the darkness, too.... You, too, have your choice; go—nay, stay.—You shall see the last of me, Henry: the gig is waiting now.—Plant me these last acorns, girl; heart o' the oak, heart o' the oak....”


The tide rustled and talked as it receded swiftly down the river channel, and here and there one of the stakes that marked out the waterway could be distinguished dimly in the darkness. The craft in the harbour began to heel over as the water left them. The tide washed and slapped against hulls and pebbles and wooden groynes and stone angles; and at the top of the breakwater half a dozen lanterns showed a group of dark figures that looked seaward.

The riding-lights of the ship had changed position; and between the ship and the harbour mouth the grunt of oars on rowlocks could be heard. A light appeared at the bow of a boat and shone on the water that broke at its foot. The groups shuffled to one side of the breakwater as the creaking of the oars drew nearer, and they could see the effort of the rowers as the current became rapid and confined. The boat laboured up past the stone entrance, and a man ran along the breakwater, leaped down to the crunching pebbles, and cast a rope. The pebbles grated harshly as the group followed him and pressed down to the boats. A man sprang from the ship's boat to a rocking dinghy, and thence to another and another; and the boats tossed and knocked, and the water lapped loudly. The man sprang down to the beach, and Jessie Wheeler ran to him with a low cry. Another followed him, but, except that Jennie Holmes cried once “Father!” nobody spoke. In a few minutes all were landed, and the boat was thrust off immediately. Mechanically the group moved towards the breakwater again; they stood there as the boat dropped down the harbour and went out on the whispering tide.

Suddenly Jennie Holmes broke into hysterical sobs, and Willie Ramsey caught Jessie in his arms as she reeled against a wooden butt.

A woman touched his arm.

“Are ye him?... Ay, she's overwrought. Ye'd best carry her to my house while morning. Happen a two-three neighbours 'll put the rest o' ye up. What say ye, folk?”

—And the Pillers turned their backs to the sea, filed off the breakwater, and followed the men and women of Portsannet.