SHORT STORIES

The Doctor of the Dale

Oswald Wildridge May 1 1910
SHORT STORIES

The Doctor of the Dale

Oswald Wildridge May 1 1910

The Doctor of the Dale

Oswald Wildridge

IT was Fletcher, the master of Hunday, whose home is snugly set amid the solitude of Heron Crag, to whom David Branthwaite delivered his secret in the first instance; and although Fletcher is one of the strong men his strength was turned to naught, and astonishment sealed his lips. Afterwards, 'because David asked it, he passed the news to Skelton, the shepherd of Miterdale, and to the pair of them the secret had the weight of a heavy burden. It was only when time

for reflection was given that they realized how much the revelation meant to the doctor.

When David turned his gig that day into the lane that sheers 'steeply from the creek at Dalefoot into the mountain lands, he did so reluctantly, and it was a good thing for him that Meg knew the way as well as himself, for he drove with loose rein and head down-bent. As a rule, when we caught the doctor in this mood we knew that he had a specially bad case

in hand, and we returned thanks for his rough-coated nag and its wisdom.

Not until Meg was plodding up the brow towards the fir plantation which screens the house of Hunday from the northern winds did the doctor shake off his thoughts, and even then their mark remained, so that when Fletcher met him in the croft, he seemed to have some embarrassment about his words. As a man of discretion, Fletcher gave him his time, and by and by, when mention was made of the winter’s work among the sheep, the doctor blurted out his news.

“I’ll not be here then, John. It’s what I’ve driven up the dale to tell you.”

“Not be here?” Fletcher repeated wonderingly. Then, mistaking the drift of the declaration, he added: “And I’m glad to hear it, David. You’ll be taking a holiday, and it’s about time. Why, man, I don’t believe you’ve ever had one—except just a day now and again. Though I think you’re making a mistake in choosing the winter. And I don’t see how any locum ’ll manage the dales if it’s a time of snow or flood.”

“It’s no holiday I’m thinking of,” David was again stumbling over his words. “At least, it’s a holiday that’ll last till the end of my time. I’m going for good. I’ve worked long enough. I’m wanting a rest.—And I’m wanting to see a bit of the world before it’s too late. Got a touch of the wanderlust, I expect. And so I’m selling the practice ; going to advertise it, and I’ll part with it as soon as I’ve found the right man. That’s one point I’m being particular about; I must have the right man—for the dalesfolk are not like ordinary people, and a wrong choice might lead to heart-break, both for them and the new doctor.”

Among the men of the hill country Fletcher of Hunday, a man of long, wiry frame, weather-tanned face, square chin, and a head with its thatch of iron-grey hair, carried well erect, ranked as one of the strongest, not merely in thew and sinew, but also in character, in judgment, and the

quality of the helping hand. Like the rest of us, moreover, he has the knack of making the best of a bad job, and is little given to emotional display. But here was a crisis of magnitude ; every home in the dale was threatened with the loss of a friend; and because of this, sorrow laid its chilling hand upon him, bewilderment ran riot in his heart. And when David beheld the signs he hastened to the end.

“I can’t help it, John. I mustn’t bide here any longer. I’m an old man —a creaking gate, and—I’m getting old-fashioned. Not that that’s got anything to do with it, I’m going because I’m tired and wanting a rest. I didn’t mean to tell anybody till all was settled, but—there’s been few friendships so strong as yours and mine, and I was bond to tell you. I’d like you to pass it on to Skelton; one telling is as much as I can manage, and there it must rest until I ask j’ou to break it to the dale.”

This was the first time that David Branthwaite had ever made any show of the white feather. A second sign he gave when he edged away to the door so that he might escape the pleadings of his friend, but Fletcher barred his flight and pointed to the chair.

“Sit ye there. David Branthwaite,” he said, “till I try to show you the measure of your folly. The dale without the doctor! Man, it’s a thing that’ll not bide thinking of. It’s all very well for you to talk about taking your rest, but what’s the dale going to do? A fine pack of ninnies we shall be in the hands of a town doctor, who’ll be giving town physic for country constitutions, and most likely ’ll not be able to go his rounds more than six or seven months out of the twelve. What’ll the folks be doing in the bad weather when the fogs are hiding the fell-tracks or the snows are about, or the flood waters are out? The poorly bodies ’ll just have to go on suffering, and mebbe die. And all the while you’ll be taking what you call your rest. A man has no right to rest as long as the world needs him and he can give it service.”

This was Fletcher’s manner of being hard, but the doctor was in no wise deceived or weakened in his purpose.

“It’s a fine gift o’ diplomacy you’ve got, John Fletcher,” he replied, “though I’m thinking that a child could see through you. And, what’s more to the point, I didn’t drive up the foothills to-day to have my mind changed for me. I’d fixed it too fast before I left Dalefoot for that.”

“But what about the folks?” Fletcher protested. “Don’t you ken that they’ve made you one of their heroes, and that many a time the battle’s half won as soon as a 'sick body sees your face.”

“Hero, indeed !” the doctor snapped. “There’s nothing in that. The dale’s full of ’em. Nearly every shepherd on the fells is a hero, and every woman who’s called by the name of mother. As for me, it’s time I made way for a younger man—though it isn’t for that I’m going.” Here he broke off suddenly, and made a valiant effort at defiance. “I’ve had my fill of work, and I mean to rest.”

About the hour of sundown the master of Hunday stalked solemnly across the fells to the lonely house by the tarn where the shepherd of Miterdale lived his lonely life, and the moon was high over the crown of Great Gable, when he set out on his return. And through all the intervening hours the talk was of David Branthwaite and the loss that was about to befall the people of the dale.

It was a conversation broken by many prolonged gaps, wherein thought was given free rein, and chunks of heroism were raked out of the doctor’s past and rejoiced over as something more precious than the treasures of earth. It was Fletcher who recalled the flood of ’72 when Nicholson, the doctor of Blengthwaite, was down, and David worked the round in addition to his own, spending much of his time in Old Toni Howard’s boat. But it was Skelton who went over that adventure along the storm-lashed waters of the lake to the home of Susan Hetherington at Down-in-the-Dale,

which not only put the prophets of disaster to shame, but saved the life of an old woman. It was Skelton, also, who remembered the blight that fell upon the bairns, and how David had no sleep in his own bed for full three weeks, but stole a nap now and again on the settles of farm-house kitchens, and this in turn was capped by Fletcher with the good that was done by stealth for Jerry Todbunter, and David’s wrath when an accident gave his secret to the world.

Thus, chunk by chunk, they quarried the treasure, and themselves were so amazed by the richness of the store that the shepherd was moved to a passion of protest; “Maister Fletcher, we munna let the doctor gang fra amang us. It’ll be something mair than a man that’s missing: it’ll be part of the dale itself. It’ll be just as though Scaw Fell were plucked up by the roots or Great Howe cast into the sea.”

Fletcher shook his head hopelessly.

“When did you ever ken David Branthwaite go back on his spoken word?” he said. “Besides, I hardly think I’ve told you everything. He makes it out that it’s for his own sake that he’s leaving us. He wants rest, if you please, and a bit of gallivanting about before his day’s done. And that’s nonsense. He hasn’t got the money for gallivanting—he’s spent too much on other folks for that. I’m thinking that it’s just another bit of his real self showing. Mind, he’s only dropped a word or two by accident, but I think I’ve got a grip of the notion that moving him—he fancies that he’s grown old-fashioned and out of date ; he’s been too busy to keep pace with the pack. And once let him get convinced that his retirement’s a matter of duty there’s no power on earth that’ll keep him among us.”

Afterwards the statesman and the shepherd held many consultations, each reporting to the other their discoveries regarding the doctors’s plans and the progress of his preparations for flight: and finally, on the darkest day of all, came Fletcher across the

fell with the intelligence that the fateful step had been taken, and that after much sifting of correspondence the doctor had made choice of his successor.

After the manner of a man without hope Fletcher passed the news along, but Skelton received it with stubbornness and doubt.

“I’se believe it when I see it,” he declared ; “there’s nut a man in all the world who’s able to wear David Branth’ets’ shoes as long as David himself’s alive.”

II.

Autumn made a sullen descent upon the land that year, with much drip of rain in the lowlands and a great murk of sodden mist everywhere, and the night that David Branthwaite has marked as the night of his crisis was one of impenetrable gloom. As for the day, it was just the one to make an old man long for rest. Hard. on the heels of the dawn there came a call to a lonely farm beyond Holm Rook. By noon he was going his round of the Twin Hamlets at the head of the dale, and night had settled on the land when he climbed into his gig on the flank of Black Coombe with a fine bunch of miles between himself and his home. It was a bad night for any man to be abroad, with the land tucked away from sight under a blanket of solid fog. and when David led his gig into the road he delivered himself into the keeping of Meg. It was a true word that he spoke when he declared that “it all rested with Meg.” and David had a full appreciation of the fact. Now and again, as the mettlesome little horse adroitlv picked her way down the rough hillside, through the mist he threw her a word of encouragement, and when she carried them round one of the sharpest elbows on their track, he laid his hand on the tousled head of Dash, who had the other seat in the gig. and called the dog’s attention to the achievement:

“Isn’t she fine. Dash—not another horse in the dale that ’ud do it.”

It was a night of nothingness. Sight was robbed of power; instinct and the sense of touch were alone reliable ; there was naught but the measured beat of hoof and the muffled grind of wheel to proclaim the existence of the world. Sky and stars had vanished; all the far-extended range of mountain crags had been swept away; all the homely lights on the fellside farms were extinguished. Nothing with life was showing save an old man, a tousled dog, and a wayworn horse.

David has since declared that the spell of home lay upon him that night with intensified force. He longed for the glowing comfort of the fire. Only that is not quite how his confession runs. He talks of his conduct as foolishness and the longing as a sign of weakness. He speaks also with something like self-contempt of the resentment that gripped him when the silent world became articulate, with the voice of a man clamouring in the void.

“Doctor—doctor, is that vou, doctor?”

It was a call darkly ominous. Too well did David recognise the signal. It was not the first time that Love had cried to him by night in anguish. Also 't was not the first time that Love had called to him without cause. His vision of home comfort suddenly receded. There was a tang of rebellion in his reply: “Ay, it’s me. Who are you—and what d’ye want?”

“I’m Reuben Banks—fra Netherghyll.”

Out of the mist a man, young but haggard, and woefully bedraggled, advanced into the dull arc of the gig s twin side-lights. Reuben Banks laid his hand on the shaft and turned his pallid face and blinking eyes to meet the doctor’s penetrating gaze.

“Eh, doctor, but I'm glad I’ve found you. I’ve been to your hoose. bit Mistress Bewsher said you’d gone Black Coombe way, an’ seah I cum along till t’end o’t Lonnin’, to try an’ catch you.”

“And what is it you want? What’s wrong?”

“It’s the bairn, doctor. It’s a shame calling you to Netherghyll on sec a night—an’ fells are fearful—bit we canna do without you. The mistress thinks it’s—dipthery.”

“Dipthery, did ye say?” The interrogation was charged with suspicion. “I’ll warrant it’s only a bit of a sore throat. Some of you fellside fathers and mothers have given me many a weary trounce with that cry. Netherghyll on such a night—it’s ridiculous !”

“The laal laddie’s mighty bad, doctor.”

“And I’m mighty weary. And Meg’s done up. And it’s fourteen mile to Netherghyll if it’s a furlong.”

“Aye, if you gang by t’ woad, but you can make it seven by crossing fell.”

“Listen till him,” David snapped. “Across fell when you can’t see a hand’s-breadth in front.”

But Reuben had a child in need of help, and he was not going to be so easily repulsed. Moreover, he knew the manner of the man with whom he was dealing.

“It’s not beyond you, doctor,” he pleaded. “You ken all the ins and outs of the dale. Fwolk say that you could find your way fra Three Shire Stones till top o’ Black Sail Pass with your eyes blindfolded. An’ the bairn’s terrible poorly. He’s burning like a furnace—he’s been rambling in his talk—and—and when I cum away he —he didn’t ken his own mother.” “Oh, didn’t he? Well, when vou’ve done with your havers you nrght just get a grip o’ Meg’s head and lead her round the bend. She wants badly to go forrad to her stable. Then you can can come up beside me and we’ll try and win through. Though you may set your mind at rest about the bairn ; it’ll be a bit cold he’s got, and the little’ns are soon down and soon up.” As the wheels grated on the ground, however, he softly murmured : “Best foot forrad, Meg; best foot forrad. We’re folks of power, you and me—a wee laddie’s life—and if rests with 62

an old man and a tired horse. As for the fireside and the slippers—Shaf !”

It was a silent journey. Reuben Banks was thinking of his child, and the thoughts of David Branthwaite strayed ever to a letter that lay upon his desk ready for posting before the mail went out on the morrow, and to the man who was coming to the dale to rule over his kingdom. And when he thought of the letter his heart was touched with bitterness, and when he thought of the man his heart was touched with dread. All the while he sat well forward in the gig, his eyes steadily boring the pall in front of them, his ears intently set for the sounds of the road by which he was enabled to measure their progress, the tinkle of cascades upon the heights, the shout of the roystering river, the boom of the cataracts behind Burnfoot.

And thus, with much difficulty, they came to the house of Grayrigg, where Meg was stabled hastily in one of the vacant stalls—in the dale every door is open to the doctor and every stable to his horse—and then, having helped themselves to a couple of lanterns, the two men took to the hidden track of thQ fells. Men who rely on sight for their traveling would have denounced the enterprise as one of desperate folly, but David led the way through the appalling waste with confidence. Occasionally he halted and swung his lantern low across the swampy track, but it was clear that he was trusting more to the cairns of mountain stone erected for the guiding of the shepherds at work upon the fells in time of snow. One by onp the cairns were nicked up. their bulk hugely magnified by the mist, their forms weird and wraith-like, and at length under the lee of one of them David called for a change of route.-

“Here’s where we drop our landmarks and plunge into the wilderness,” he declared. “If I’ve got my bearings, and I think I have, we’rè only a quarter of a mile from Frosticks Bield, and ten minutes after that I’ll be looking to your b^irp,”

The mother met them by the inner door of her home, the tiny cot of a herdsman of the hills; her eyes proclaimed the terror of loss rioting in her heart. When David spoke to her, with his “Well, Janie, and how’s the bairn?” she pointed to the truckle bed in the far corner whereon her boy lay, a curly-haired mite, a hectic spot flushing each cheek, his breathing hard and noisy, the tumultuous heaving of the slender frame betraying the sternness of the struggle for life.

One quick glance, and then David pulled off his plaid, his great-coat, and his cap, and handed them to Reuben.

“Clear these away,” he said, “out of the room.”

When Reuben returned the doctor was down on his knees by the bed, his' hands deftly busy about the child. Solemnly the wag at the wa’ clock ticked out the seconds ; to the father and mother the seconds seemed to have had the length of hours., when the old man rose and gently laid his hand on the mother’s shoulder.

“My lassie,” he said, “you sent for me all the way to Dalefoot because of your trust, and now you’ve got to trust me a bit further. I want you to give your bairn up to me for ten minutes—a quarter of an hour, mebbe —and if he can be saved I’ll save him for you. Just slip away to your room —and a bit prayer—and I’ll send Reuben for you—when I’ve done my work.”

The mother raised her. head and met the doctor eye to eye. She was a woman bereft of speech, but motherhood is never dumb. All the longing of her soul was concentrated in that one look ; the one passionate demand of her life was laid bare; it was a prayer for the life of her boy. Then she passed into the bedroom, and as the door closed the doctor threw off his coat and rolled up his sleeves.

“Empty that kettle into a basin and fill it up again,” he ordered Reuben. “That’s it—put it on the table.” He himself was opening a small case of delicate instruments. “Now I want a

bandage—something big enough to hold the laddie—ay, that long plaid o’ yours ’ll do nicely. And I want you to help me—when I’ve got him wrapped up you’ll have to hold his head. Tou don’t need to bother about your nerve—it’s nothing—simple operation —usual thing for a bad case o’ diphtheria.....That’s it. You’ve

managed fine. I can do the rest myself, lad.” And then, after a pause, wherein the doctor worked swiftly and the long bandage was removed and the child carefully wrapped up in his bed again, “I wish you’d look into the room and let Janie ken how her bairn’s breathing again — you can see for yourself. It’s all a matter o’ constitution now, and he comes of good stock.”

As for the rest of the labors that were wrought that night for the life of the herdsman’s child, they may not be set down in printed words, but at least they are ineffaceably engraved on the hearts of two of the hill people. A picture of intense power that cottage interior presented : Reuben seated on the settle under the window, rigid as a block of marble, the mother crouched on the rug by David’s dog; the grizzled, shaggy-maned doctor by the bedside, watching, watching, listening, listening all the time. Once David called the mother to his side and whispered, “Janie, woman, will you get me bite and sup? I haven’t tasted for ten hours” ; and a little later he threw her a nod which said as plainly as words, “I’m not saying he’s out o’ danger, but your bairn’s holding his own.”

At last, as the dawnlight filtered through the mist the doctor staggered across the floor, dropped like a log on the settle, and when the mother bent over him he waved his hand towards the bed.

“Look after the bairn,” he mumbled. “He’ll do now—with a bit o’ care. I’m all right — just tired — terribly tired—and I’m going to rest.”

It is doubtful whether she heard him. Before his head had snuggled into the cushion she was away by her

sleeping child, but when David awake a couple of hours later she was ready for him with stammering words of gratitude.

“I’se never forget you, doctor. You little ken the comfort it is to have a man like you to send for. There are some who say you’ve got a rough tongue and a manner as wild as the winds on fell in winter-time, but dalesfolk ken that you’re one o’ God’s good men—an’ Reuben an’ me'll never forget. An’ I’se tell the bairn-”

“I’ll warrant you will.” David glowered on her in wrath. He was ever intolerant of thanks. “An’ I’se tell the bairn that he’s got the greatest chattermag in all the dales for a mother. Whatever’s come ower the woman? All this havering for a bit of sore throat ! You shouldn’t be so free with your words. Whatever would you have said if the child had really ailed anything? It’d be mair to your credit if you’d be asking me to a cup o’ that tea you’ve just been massing before I set off across fells, thanks indeed—what next?”

Now, although he had called himself “a creaking gate,” there was a wonderful swing about the doctor’s action when he left the cottage, and he carried his head like one of the youngsters. The mist was lifting now, swirling off the foothills in huge, fantastic shapes, so that the way of his return was clear ; but, instead of heading straight for the stable at Grayrigg, he turned away toward Heron Crag and the house of Hunday. And here, although he had already declared that his night’s ministry had been rendered to a sore throat, he now had a different tale to tell.

“The top o’ the morning to ye, John Fletcher,” .he cried. “I’ve saved the life of a bairn, the joy of a woman and a man, and ye can give me your hand upon it.”

“There’s nothing new in that, David,” Fletcher replied very quietly. “Whose was the bairn?”

“Reuben Banks’ laddie—a matter of touch and go—worst case of diphtheria I’ve ever handled. And I’ve worked twice round the clock—and I’ve not seen my own bed since night before last—and I went clean across fell in last night’s fog. It was the short cut that saved the bairn. If I’d taken the road there’d have been a house of mourning in the dale instead of a house of joy.”

A queerish look, a blend of pride and hope and disappointment, swept across Fletcher’s face, and his next observation seemed to be lacking in point.

“And the name of your successor is Ferguson, isn’t it?”

“Ferguson. That’s the man I settled on,” the doctor replied. “I wrote to him a couple of days ago.”

“Then he’ll have got your letter by now, David, and you’re no longer the real doctor of the dale.”

“That’s one of your mistakes, Fletcher. Man, you shouldn't be so hasty in your judgments. I said nothing about the posting of the letter. Abdication isn’t easy. I wanted to hold my kingdom a wee bit longer—and so I kept the letter back for twentyfour hours.”

“Ah ! And now you’ll be away to drop it into the letter-box?”

“I’m away now.” Here the doctor halted just to get the shake out of his voice. Then he tried again. “I’m away now to put my foolishness from me. That letter—I’m going to tear it up. It’s no successor I’m wanting, though, mebbe, I’ll look out for a likely assistant and train him up to the way of the folks and the country—to take my place when I’m gone.”

Fletcher tried hard to speak, but failed, and David finished the statement of his case : “Man, they can’t do without me—and I can’t do without them. I’ll neither rest nor rust. I’m going to die in harness—and I’d have ye ken that I’m still the doctor of the dale.”