Round the Red Lamp
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