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–
“Ho! the prickly briar,
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.”
“Very well; then it’s right-about-face with you and back to Drakeport before I let you go. Do you see this stick? If you attempt to walk a step more towards the port, I’ll crack your head with it.”
He gulped down something in his throat. “Is the old man ill?” he asked.
“He’s dead,” said I, simply.
The fellow turned his eyes to the horizon, and began whistling the air of “The Prickly Briar” softly to himself. And while he whistled, my memory ran back to the day when he first came to trouble us, and play the fiend’s mischief with a couple of dear honest hearts.
The day I travelled back to was one in the prime of May, when the lilacs were out by Dr. Jago’s green gate, and the General from Drakeport Barracks, with the red and white feathers in his cocked-hat, had just cantered up the street, followed by a dozen shouting urchins, on his way to the Downs. For it was the end of the militia-training, when the review was always held; and all the morning the bugles had been sounding at the head of every street and lane where the men were billeted.
When the gold-laced General disappeared, he left the streets all but empty; for the townspeople by this time had flocked to the Downs. Only by Dr. Jago’s gate there stood a small group in the sunshine. Kitty, the doctor’s mare that had pulled his gig for ten years, was standing saddled in the roadway, with a stable-boy at her head; just outside the gate, the little doctor himself in regimentals and black cocked-hat with black feathers, regarding her; behind, the pleasant old face of his wife, regarding him; and, behind again, the two maid-servants regarding the group generally from behind their mistress’s shoulder.
“Maria, I shall never do it,” said the doctor, measuring with his eye the distance between the ground and the stirrup.