The doctor leapt to his feet: and these old souls, who knew each other so passing well, looked into each other’s eyes, half in terror.
At that instant a feeble wail smote on their ears. It came from the cupboard underneath the stairs.
“Maria! I put it there myself, two hours ago. I picked it up on the downs. I’ve been—”
“You! I thought it was some beggar-woman’s doing. John, John—why didn’t you say so before!”
And she rushed out of the room.
This seedy scamp who reclined beside me was the child that she brought back with her from the little cupboard. They had adopted him, fed him, educated him, wrapped him round with love; and he had lived to break their hearts. Possibly there was some gipsy blood in him that defied their nurture. But the speculation is not worth going into. I only know that I felt the better that afternoon as I watched his figure diminishing on the road back to Drakeport. He had a crown of mine in his pocket, and was still singing—
“Ho! just loosen
If it’s only just for a while;
I fancy I see my father coming
Across from yonder stile.”
I had lied in telling him that the old doctor was dead. As a matter of fact he lay dying that afternoon. Half-way down the hill I saw the small figure of Jacobs, the sexton, turn in at the church-gate. He was going to toll the passing-bell.
It is just six years ago that I first travelled the coast from Gorrans Haven to Zoze Point.
Since then I have visited it in fair weather and foul; and in time, perhaps, shall rival the coastguardsmen, who can walk it blindfold. But to this day it remains in my recollection the coast I trod, without companion, during four dark days in December. It was a rude introduction. The wind blew in my face, with scuds of cold rain; a leaden mist hung low on the left, and rolled slowly up Channel. Now and then it thinned enough to reveal a white zigzag of breakers in front, and a blur of land; or, far below, a cluster of dripping rocks, with the sea crawling between and lifting their weed. But for the most part I saw only the furze-bushes beside the path, each powdered with fine raindrops, that in the aggregate resembled a coat of grey frieze, and the puffs of spray that shot up over the cliff’s lip and drenched me.
Just beyond the Nare Head, where the path dipped steeply, a bright square disengaged itself from the mist as I passed, and, around it, the looming outline of a cottage, between the footpath and the sea. A habitation more desolate than this odd angle of the coast could hardly have been chosen; on the other hand, the glow of firelight within the kitchen window was almost an invitation. It seemed worth my while to ask for a drink of milk there, and find out what manner of folk were the inmates.