At nine o’clock he died, with his head on her lap.
She closed his eyes, smoothed the wrinkles on his tired face, and sat watching him for some time. At length she lifted and laid him on the deal table at full length, bolted the door, put the heavy shutter on the low window, and began to light the fire.
For fuel she had a heap of peat-turves and some sticks. Having lit it, she set a crock of water to warm, and undressed the man slowly. Then, the water being ready, she washed and laid him out, chafing his limbs and talking to herself all the while.
“Fair, straight legs,” she said; “beautiful body that leapt in my side, forty years back, and thrilled me! How proud I was! Why did God make you beautiful?”
All night she sat caressing him. And the smoke of the peat-turves, finding no exit and no draught to carry them up the chimney, crept around and killed her quietly beside her son.
There are said to be many vipers on the Downs above the sea; but it was so pleasant to find a breeze up there allaying the fervid afternoon, that I risked the consequences and stretched myself at full length, tilting my straw hat well over my nose.
Presently, above the tic-a-tic-tick of the grasshoppers, and the wail of a passing gull, a human sound seemed to start abruptly out of the solitude—the voice of a man singing. I rose on my elbow, and pushed the straw hat up a bit. Under its brim through the quivering atmosphere, I saw the fellow, two hundred yards away, a dark obtrusive blot on the bronze landscape. He was coming along the track that would lead him down-hill to the port; and his voice fell louder on the still air—
It prickles my throat so sore—
If I get out o’ the prickly briar,
I’ll never get in any more.”
“Ho! just loosen the rope”—
At this point I must have come within his view, for he halted a moment, and then turned abruptly out of the track towards me,— a scare-crow of a figure, powdered white with dust. In spite of the weather, he wore his tattered coat buttoned at the throat, with the collar turned up. Probably he possessed no shirt; certainly no socks, for his toes protruded from the broken boots. He was quite young.
Without salutation he dropped on the turf two paces off and remarked—
“It’s bleedin’ ’ot.”
There was just a pause while he cast his eyes back on the country he had travelled; then, jerking his thumb over his shoulder in the direction of the port, he inquired—
“’Ow’s the old lot?”
Said I, “Look here; you’re Dick Jago. How far have you walked to-day?”
He had turned on me as if ready with a sharp question, but changed his mind and answered doggedly—
“All the way from Drakeport.”