It is hard for the general practitioner who sits
among his patients both morning and evening, and sees
them in their homes between, to steal time for one
little daily breath of cleanly air. To win it he
must slip early from his bed and walk out between
shuttered shops when it is chill but very clear, and
all things are sharply outlined, as in a frost. It
is an hour that has a charm of its own, when, but for
a postman or a milkman, one has the pavement to
oneself, and even the most common thing takes an
ever-recurring freshness, as though causeway, and
lamp, and signboard had all wakened to the new day.
Then even an inland city may seem beautiful, and bear
virtue in its smoke-tainted air.
But it was by the sea that I lived, in a town
that was unlovely enough were it not for its glorious
neighbour. And who cares for the town when one can
sit on the bench at the headland, and look out over
the huge, blue bay, and the yellow scimitar that
curves before it. I loved it when its
great face was freckled with the fishing boats, and I
loved it when the big ships went past, far out, a
little hillock of white and no hull, with topsails
curved like a bodice, so stately and demure. But
most of all I loved it when no trace of man marred
the majesty of Nature, and when the sun-bursts
slanted down on it from between the drifting
rainclouds. Then I have seen the further edge draped
in the gauze of the driving rain, with its thin grey
shading under the slow clouds, while my headland was
golden, and the sun gleamed upon the breakers and
struck deep through the green waves beyond, showing
up the purple patches where the beds of seaweed are
lying. Such a morning as that, with the wind in his
hair, and the spray on his lips, and the cry of the
eddying gulls in his ear, may send a man back braced
afresh to the reek of a sick-room, and the dead, drab
weariness of practice.
It was on such another day that I first saw my
old man. He came to my bench just as I was leaving
it. My eye must have picked him out even in a
crowded street, for he was a man of large frame and
fine presence, with something of distinction in the
set of his lip and the poise of his head. He limped
up the winding path leaning heavily upon his stick,
as though those great shoulders had become too much
at last for the failing limbs that bore them. As he
approached, my eyes caught Nature's danger
signal, that faint bluish tinge in nose and lip which
tells of a labouring heart.
"The brae is a little trying, sir," said I.
"Speaking as a physician, I should say that you
would do well to rest here before you go further."
He inclined his head in a stately, old-world
fashion, and seated himself upon the bench. Seeing
that he had no wish to speak I was silent also, but I
could not help watching him out of the corners of my
eyes, for he was such a wonderful survival of the
early half of the century, with his low-crowned,
curly-brimmed hat, his black satin tie which fastened
with a buckle at the back, and, above all, his large,
fleshy, clean-shaven face shot with its mesh of
wrinkles. Those eyes, ere they had grown dim, had
looked out from the box-seat of mail coaches, and had
seen the knots of navvies as they toiled on the
brown embankments. Those lips had smiled over the
first numbers of "Pickwick," and had gossiped of the
promising young man who wrote them. The face itself
was a seventy-year almanack, and every seam an entry
upon it where public as well as private sorrow left
its trace. That pucker on the forehead stood for the
Mutiny, perhaps; that line of care for the Crimean
winter, it may be; and that last little sheaf of
wrinkles, as my fancy hoped, for the death of
Gordon. And so, as I dreamed in my foolish way, the
old gentleman with the shining stock was gone, and it
was seventy years of a great nation's life that took
shape before me on the headland in the morning.
But he soon brought me back to earth again. As
he recovered his breath he took a letter out of his
pocket, and, putting on a pair of horn-rimmed eye-
glasses, he read it through very carefully. Without
any design of playing the spy I could not help
observing that it was in a woman's hand. When he had
finished it he read it again, and then sat with the
corners of his mouth drawn down and his eyes staring
vacantly out over the bay, the most forlorn-looking
old gentleman that ever I have seen. All that is
kindly within me was set stirring by that wistful
face, but I knew that he was in no humour for talk,
and so, at last, with my breakfast and my patients
calling me, I left him on the bench and started for
I never gave him another thought until the next
morning, when, at the same hour, he turned up upon
the headland, and shared the bench which I had been
accustomed to look upon as my own. He bowed again
before sitting down, but was no more inclined than
formerly to enter into conversation. There had been
a change in him during the last twenty-four hours,
and all for the worse. The face seemed more
heavy and more wrinkled, while that ominous venous
tinge was more pronounced as he panted up the hill.
The clean lines of his cheek and chin were marred by
a day's growth of grey stubble, and his large,
shapely head had lost something of the brave carriage
which had struck me when first I glanced at him. He
had a letter there, the same, or another, but still
in a woman's hand, and over this he was moping and
mumbling in his senile fashion, with his brow
puckered, and the corners of his mouth drawn down
like those of a fretting child. So I left him, with
a vague wonder as to who he might be, and why a
single spring day should have wrought such a change
So interested was I that next morning I was on
the look out for him. Sure enough, at the same hour,
I saw him coming up the hill; but very slowly, with a
bent back and a heavy head. It was shocking to me to
see the change in him as he approached.
"I am afraid that our air does not agree with
you, sir," I ventured to remark.
But it was as though he had no heart for talk.
He tried, as I thought, to make some fitting reply,
but it slurred off into a mumble and silence. How
bent and weak and old he seemed--ten years older at
the least than when first I had seen him! It went to
my heart to see this fine old fellow wasting
away before my eyes. There was the eternal letter
which he unfolded with his shaking fingers. Who was
this woman whose words moved him so? Some daughter,
perhaps, or granddaughter, who should have been the
light of his home instead of---- I smiled to find
how bitter I was growing, and how swiftly I was
weaving a romance round an unshaven old man and his
correspondence. Yet all day he lingered in my mind,
and I had fitful glimpses of those two trembling,
blue-veined, knuckly hands with the paper rustling
I had hardly hoped to see him again. Another
day's decline must, I thought, hold him to his room,
if not to his bed. Great, then, was my surprise
when, as I approached my bench, I saw that he was
already there. But as I came up to him I could
scarce be sure that it was indeed the same man.
There were the curly-brimmed hat, and the shining
stock, and the horn glasses, but where were the stoop
and the grey-stubbled, pitiable face? He was clean-
shaven and firm lipped, with a bright eye and a head
that poised itself upon his great shoulders like an
eagle on a rock. His back was as straight and square
as a grenadier's, and he switched at the pebbles with
his stick in his exuberant vitality. In the button-
hole of his well-brushed black coat there glinted a
golden blossom, and the corner of a dainty red
silk handkerchief lapped over from his breast pocket.
He might have been the eldest son of the weary
creature who had sat there the morning before.
"Good morning, Sir, good morning!" he cried with
a merry waggle of his cane.
"Good morning!" I answered how beautiful the bay
"Yes, Sir, but you should have seen it just
before the sun rose."
"What, have you been here since then?"
"I was here when there was scarce light to see
"You are a very early riser."
"On occasion, sir; on occasion!" He cocked his
eye at me as if to gauge whether I were worthy of his
confidence. "The fact is, sir, that my wife is
coming back to me to day."
I suppose that my face showed that I did not
quite see the force of the explanation. My eyes,
too, may have given him assurance of sympathy, for he
moved quite close to me and began speaking in a low,
confidential voice, as if the matter were of such
weight that even the sea-gulls must be kept out of
"Are you a married man, Sir?"
"No, I am not."
"Ah, then you cannot quite understand it. My
wife and I have been married for nearly fifty
years, and we have never been parted, never at
all, until now."
"Was it for long?" I asked.
"Yes, sir. This is the fourth day. She had to
go to Scotland. A matter of duty, you understand,
and the doctors would not let me go. Not that I
would have allowed them to stop me, but she was on
their side. Now, thank God! it is over, and she may
be here at any moment."
"Yes, here. This headland and bench were old
friends of ours thirty years ago. The people with
whom we stay are not, to tell the truth, very
congenial, and we have, little privacy among them.
That is why we prefer to meet here. I could not be
sure which train would bring her, but if she had come
by the very earliest she would have found me
"In that case----" said I, rising.
"No, sir, no," he entreated, "I beg that you will
stay. It does not weary you, this domestic talk of
"On the contrary."
"I have been so driven inwards during these few
last days! Ah, what a nightmare it has been! Perhaps
it may seem strange to you that an old fellow like me
should feel like this."
"It is charming."
"No credit to me, sir! There's not a man on
this planet but would feel the same if he had
the good fortune to be married to such a woman.
Perhaps, because you see me like this, and hear me
speak of our long life together, you conceive that
she is old, too."
He laughed heartily, and his eyes twinkled at the
humour of the idea.
"She's one of those women, you know, who have
youth in their hearts, and so it can never be very
far from their faces. To me she's just as she was
when she first took my hand in hers in '45. A wee
little bit stouter, perhaps, but then, if she had a
fault as a girl, it was that she was a shade too
slender. She was above me in station, you know--I a
clerk, and she the daughter of my employer. Oh! it
was quite a romance, I give you my word, and I won
her; and, somehow, I have never got over the
freshness and the wonder of it. To think that that
sweet, lovely girl has walked by my side all through
life, and that I have been able----"
He stopped suddenly, and I glanced round at him
in surprise. He was shaking all over, in every fibre
of his great body. His hands were clawing at the
woodwork, and his feet shuffling on the gravel. I
saw what it was. He was trying to rise, but was so
excited that he could not. I half extended my hand,
but a higher courtesy constrained me to draw it back
again and turn my face to the sea. An instant
afterwards he was up and hurrying down the path.
A woman was coming towards us. She was quite
close before he had seen her--thirty yards at the
utmost. I know not if she had ever been as he
described her, or whether it was but some ideal which
he carried in his brain. The person upon whom I
looked was tall, it is true, but she was thick and
shapeless, with a ruddy, full-blown face, and a
skirt grotesquely gathered up. There was a green
ribbon in her hat, which jarred upon my eyes, and her
blouse-like bodice was full and clumsy. And this was
the lovely girl, the ever youthful! My heart sank as
I thought how little such a woman might appreciate
him, how unworthy she might be of his love.
She came up the path in her solid way, while he
staggered along to meet her. Then, as they came
together, looking discreetly out of the furthest
corner of my eye, I saw that he put out both his
hands, while she, shrinking from a public caress,
took one of them in hers and shook it. As she did so
I saw her face, and I was easy in my mind for my old
man. God grant that when this hand is shaking, and
when this back is bowed, a woman's eyes may look so