The Doctor's Foundling
by Arthur Thomas Quiller-Couch
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
Without salutation he dropped on the turf two paces off and
"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
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
"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
"Maria, I shall never do it," said the doctor, measuring with his eye
the distance between the ground and the stirrup.
"Indeed, John, I don't think you will."
"There was a time when I'd have vaulted it. I'm abominably late as
it is, Maria."
"Shall I give master a leg up?" suggested one of the maids.
"No, Susan, you will do nothing of the kind." Mrs. Jago paused, her
brow wrinkled beneath her white lace cap. Then an inspiration came—
"The chair—a kitchen chair, Susan!"
The maid flew; the chair was brought; and that is how the good old
doctor mounted for the review. Three minutes later he was trotting
soberly up the street, pausing twice to kiss his hand to his wife,
who watched him proudly from the green gate, and took off her
spectacles and wiped them, the better to see him out of sight.
By the time Dr. Jago reached the Downs, the review was in full swing.
The colonel shouted, the captains shouted, the regiment formed,
re-formed, marched, charged at the double, and fired volleys of blank
cartridges. The General and orderlies galloped from spot to spot
without apparent object; and all was very martial. At last the
doctor grew tired of trotting up and down without being wanted.
He thought with longing of some pools, half a mile away, in a hollow
of the Downs, that contained certain freshwater shells about which he
held a theory. The afternoon was hot. He glanced round—no one
seemed to want him: so he turned Kitty into a grassy defile that led
to the pools, and walked her leisurely away.
Half an hour later he stood, ankle-deep in water, groping for his
shells and oblivious of the review, the firing that echoed far away,
the flight of time—everything. Kitty, with one fore-leg through the
bridle, was cropping on the brink. Minutes passed, and the doctor
raised his head, for the blood was running into it. At that moment
his eye was caught by a scarlet object under a gorse-bush on the
opposite bank. He gave a second look, then waded across towards it.
It was a baby: a baby not a week old, wrapped only in a red
The doctor bent over it. The infant opened its eyes and began to
wail. At this instant an orderly appeared on the ridge above,
scanning the country. He caught sight of the doctor and descended to
the opposite shore of the pool, where he saluted and yelled his
message. It appeared that some awkward militiaman had blown his
thumb off in the blank cartridge practice and surgical help was
wanted at once.
Doctor Jago dropped the corner of the handkerchief, returned across
the pool, was helped on to Kitty's back and cantered away, the
orderly after him.
In an hour's time, having put on a tourniquet and bandaged the hand,
he was back again by the pool. The baby was still there. He lifted
it and found a scrap of paper underneath. . . .
The doctor returned by devious ways to his home, a full hour before
he was expected. He rode in at the back gate, where to his secret
satisfaction he found no stable-boy. So he stabled Kitty himself,
and crept into his own house like a thief. Nor was it like his
habits to pay, as he did, a visit to the little cupboard (where the
brandy-bottle was kept) underneath the stairs, before entering the
drawing-room, with his face full of guilt and diplomacy.
"Gracious, John!" cried out Mrs. Jago, dropping her knitting.
"Is the review over already?"
"No, I don't think it is—at least, I don't know," stammered the
"John, you have had another attack of that vertigo."
"Upon my honour I have not, Maria." The doctor was vehement; for the
vertigo necessitated brandy, and a visit to the little cupboard below
the stairs meant hideous detection.
So he sat up and tried to describe the review to his wife, and made
such an abject mess of it, that after twenty minutes she made up her
mind that he must have a headache, and, leaving the room quietly,
went to the little cupboard below the stairs. She found the door
ajar. . . .
When, after a long absence, she reappeared in the drawing-room, she
had forgotten to bring the brandy, and wore a look as guilty as her
husband's. So they sat together and talked in the twilight on
trivial matters; and each had a heart insufferably burdened, and each
was waiting desperately for an opportunity to lighten it.
"John," said Mrs. Jago at last, "we are getting poor company for each
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 the rope,
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.