Oswald Wildridge June 1 1910


Oswald Wildridge June 1 1910


Oswald Wildridge

STRANGERS idling through the dale wondered greatly as to who David Branthwaite might be when they chanced to meet him, for he was one of the men who could not be overlooked. Many were the mistakes the wayfarers made in their efforts to classify him, but, so far as is known, not one of them ever imagined him to be the doctor. If luck was theirs, and the fact was revealed to them by a native, they left the hill-country bearing some strange stories which were apt to make the men of the towns think better of the heart of humanity. They were also given the desire for a word with David Branthwaite and a shake of the hand.

It must be confessed that in many matters of address and conduct the doctor fell short of the standard set up by the profession. We never saw him arrayed in black, save for a burying; his preference in material ran to a serviceable heather-mixture, in cut the shooting costume met his fancy best ; when he made his rounds he drove a horse shaggy as any of the mountain ponies, and we never met him without his dog, the most tousled otter-hound in the countryside. It is also on record that when he attended the quality at Dalefoot he addressed them as “Mr.” and “Mrs.,” and dealt with them in the tongue of the faculty ; but among his own people he had a

strong liking for the dialect, and probably the happiest hours he knew were those spent by the glowing fire of a farmhouse kitchen when storm and darkness trapped him on the hills. In this way he learned many secrets, was given a glimpse of many skeletons usually hidden behind well-locked cupboard doors, and because he was a strong man and likeable he became a helper in a multitude of cases for whose treatment the lancet and the medicine bottle had no application.

Conversation on these occasions ran in grooves. Andrew Matterson had a taste for politics, and an hour with the doctor and the master of Nepghyll we counted a better thing than a night in the House of Commons ; at Sampson Lowther's we had theology' that would have greatly astonished the bench of bishops ; but up at Grayrigg the talk ever turned on the adventures of Robert Steele, the lad who acquired the secret of money-making so completely that while he was still young he had become a man of power.

One day, when Robert was beginning to make a name for himself, David drove five miles out of his way so that he might carry a newspaper to the sheep-farm on the shoulder of Great Howe; afterwards, as soon as they saw him mounting the brow, Jacob and Margaret knew that the doctor had news of their boy for them,

and those were never-to-'be-forgotten moments for the doctor when he read how “the chair was taken by Mr. Robert Steele,” or how “Mr. Robert Steele proposed the adoption of the balance sheet,” though the greatest event of all was when he revealed to the old folks the fact that their own son has actually “addressed the Chancellor of the Exchequer on behalf of the deputation.”

It was shortly after this that certain suspicions arose in the doctor’s mind concerning Robert Steele, and the day after the sheep-farmer and his wife completed the greatest exploit of their lives, a surprise visit to London, he dropped in for a “crack.” As a man of observation he discovered at once that the adventure had ended in disaster.

Margaret was clearly ill, Jacob confessed to feeling a “laal bit tired,” but the thing that troubled the doctor most of all was that new hardness of their features and their chilling lack of response. Both of the old folks had grown like the rocks that encircle the dale.

London, they explained, was such a wearying place, it lived so quickly and made so much noise ; and their weariness was the mark that London had made. Margaret felt terribly sorry for the people who were compelled to earn their bread and butter there, and she was sure that a single day’s work in London must be vastly harder than a whole week of sheeptending in the dales.

Robert? Oh, yes, he was quite well ! His house ? It was a wonderful house ; there were none like it in the dale, except the castle at Dalefoot where his lordship lived. Yes, Robert had plenty of servants. Margaret had counted four, and she fancied there were others; and he had silverware that must be worth a fortune, and carpets as soft to the foot as the breast of Great Howe, and pictures that surely the greatest painter-men in the land must have painted. And that was all. They were both very tired, and they would never go to London again.

“And quite right, too,” the doctor snapped ; “you’d have been better employed if you’d gone to Tom Jenkinsón’s sale,” and in a trice old Jacob and he were discussing ' the prices which Tom had obtained for his sheep and cattle, this being Branthwaite’s way of giving a new turn to an undesirable conversation. He had little doubt as to what had befallen the old couple, and his suspicion became a certainty at the end of the month, when Margaret took to her bed, smitten by a malady for which medicine has no remedy. This was one of Branthwaite’s hard cases ; setting a bone or battling with a fever was child’s play to treating a breaking heart.

“She’s beating me herself,” he declared, when the time for faithful dealing arrived, “and Jacob, my man, I’m not going to hide the truth from you any longer. The mistress is failing, and I’m helpless. As long as a body wants to live, it’s one-half the battle, but Margaret’s just letting her life go by.” He laid his hand on the farmer’s shoulder and looked him squarely in the face. “Jacob, I’m in the dark—she kens what it is that ails her, and you know it as well. I’m not wanting you to tell me anything that belongs to yourselves alone; but as between man and man I’m making it plain to you that mebbe your wife’s life is lying in your hands, and if you can name anything that’ll rouse her it’s her only chance.”

They were out in the croft, standing by the doctor’s shabby, time-worn gig, and this was Branthwaite’s last word. He was never the man to beg for a confidence or to wait for one, but as he placed his foot on the step Jacob Steele laid a detaining hand on his arm.

“Bide a minute, doctor,” he said; “I’ll tell you. You mustn’t let her slip. I need her mair than ever. I canna face the loneliness without her. It’s for the laddie she’s grieving. He was all she lived for; but—he—he’s slipped away; the thing that’s known as pride has stolen him, and now she’s

a mother without a bairn, and she seems to feel that she has nothing left that’s worth living^ for. You’ll mind hoo we were aye joking aboot the busyness that wouldn’t give him time to come to the dale to see his father and mother, and hoo we settled to give him a grand surprise by going to London oorselves and dropping in on him just as if we’d called for a cup o’ tea. We shouldn’t have done it. He’s done famous, has Robert, but— he’s one of the men who can’t stand corn. He’s climbed so high that he’s passed oot of sight of his starting point. Man, it was terrible—a heartbreak—we saw it at the very first. We had a gey hard job to get intil the hoose at all, for there was ß silly man body who wanted to know if we’d brought cards with us, an’ then he

wanted oor names, and it was boddersome to drive it intil him that in t’ dale a friend may always count on an open door, and that all he’d got to do was to tell his maister that a man and woman wanted a word with him.” “But you got your word at last?” “Ay. We got it, Robert bundled us through intil a bonny back parlor. He was frightened to death that any of the servant folk should know that the woman with the plain speech and old-fashioned clothes, and the man who was a sheep-famer, and looked like one, were just his oan father and mother. I’ll spare ye the rest. There weren’t any words. We just came home. And since then Margaret’s been going doon the hill. She’s scorned by her oan bairn, an’ she isn’t caring aboot living.”

“And yersel’, Jacob?”

This was one of the signs that the doctor was touched. He nearly always dropped into the dialect. Jacob Steele stared steadily away to the Pike o’ Blisco, glowing in the sunlight like an upreared spear of gold; the doctor knew that his heart also carried a jagged wound, and that speech was hurting.

“I’m a prood man myself,” he answered, at length ; “and I’m thinking mine’s a better mak’ o’ pride than the sort my lad has ' found among his money bags and his honors. Robert Steele had chosen his own track—-and he may tread it. If the old home and the old folks and the old ways are not good enough, he may just make shift with the new ones. I’ve put him oot of my life. That night—after we got back fra London—when I barred the door—I barred it against him for ever.”

“Does Margaret ken that?”

“We’ve never had any secrets.” “What does she say?”

“She agrees wi’ the justice of it. We both mean to be hard. There’s nothing ’ll ever wipe oot the slight. And, doctor, there’s surely a chance for her—you’ll not let her slip.”

“It’s what ye might call a complicated case, Jacob.” David’s voice could be terribly dry when he chose to make it so. “I don’t know that Tvc ever had one like it. There have been times when I’ve suspected the breaking of a heart, but I’m pretty certain that I’ve never been asked' to prescribe for one that was suffering from hardness as well. Anyhow, you may count on me doing my best. It’s no ordinary treatment that’ll set her on her feet, and no physic; but while there’s life there’s hope, and I’ll bid ye good-day.” And with that he was up in the gig and driving out of the croft.

His next visit to Greyrigg was a long one, and, according to the things that Margaret has related, his talk had little to do with sickness or its treatment. Still, it was amazingly effective, for when Jacob came down from 80

the fells he found his wife sitting up in her bed, new color in her cheeks, her eyes once more ashine. She was wonderfully ready to talk; she who had been so content to lie still day after day with rarely a word upon her lips; and while Jacob marvelled at the change she began her revelation.

“I’se a wicked woman”—of all the women in the dale we had none more gentle, not one more motherly—“and I’ye only just found it out. Like the man in the Book, I’ve turned my face to the wall and been ready to give up my life, bit noo I’m wanting to live— if oanly to put the crooked things straight.”

Jacob laid his hand caressingly on his wife’s shoulder. “E'h, my lass,” he muttered brokenly.. “This just caps aw—God’s mighty work—an’ this’ll be a bit o’ David Branth’et’s work.” !

“He’s spent a gey long time with me to-day”—Margaret was full of her tale—“and noo I see things as plain as print. He’s been telling me of a woman body somewhere—¡he wouldn’t name no names, though I expect she’s one of his patients. She’s got a son who’s one o’ t’ biggest wastrels on earth; he’s neglected her till she’s known the want o’ bread, and abused her as though she’d been his worst enemy, and there’s hardly one o’ t’ Commandments he hasn’t broken ; and yet, when she’s had a penny to spare she’s spent it in buying something for herself and she’s passed it off as a present fra her son, so that the folks who kenned him when he was a bit laddie shouldn’t think ill of him.”

“My word, lass, but that was fine.”

“Ay, wasn’t it? An’, Jacob, before he went the doctor asked me aboot— aboot our laddie. An’ it wasn’t so much the words he used as the queer way he handled them that set me thinking, and I’ve got it on my mind that the folks in the dale may be blaming Robert for the thing that’s such a heartbreak to you and me. And I canna stand it. What if he is ashamed of his mother’s old-fashioned ways? I can bide it. What I can’t bide is

that anybody should treat his name with disrespect, or point the finger of scorn at him.”

“It’s oanly his wages, the thing he’s earned. Didn’t we agree that as a matter o’ justice—”

“Ay,” Margaret broke in, “we spoke in haste and pride. An’ I’m not so sure aboot justice now. I’m beginning to think that when fathers and mothers have dealt with mercy they’ll have neither time nor taste for justice—they can leave that to folks vrith harder hearts.”

“And what is it you want me to do?”

There was rebellion in the tone ; and while Margaret pleaded for the reopening of the door Jacob listened with his jaw tightly set, his eyes harboring an uncompromising frown. From the bedside he turned to the window7, and looked with unseeing vision on the mountain heights. Memory painted for him another picture, of that scene in London with all its black indignity, reminded him of the sacrifices of fatherhood and motherhood, and the baseness of the return. Margaret was asking more than he could grant. Time enough to relent when the prodigal came home and begged for mercy.

His mind made up. he returned to the bedside of his sick wife, and there he discovered that decision rested with the mother and not with himself. In her hand Margaret held a pair of baby shoes, holed and frayed by use and years. They were her crowning argument.

“D’ye remember them?” she whispered, a passion of love in the tone; “they are his—the first pair your money bought for him.” She placed them in his hands. “Ye mind how proud you wrere. The little feet soon grew tired in them days. Jacob, an’ ye were aye ready to hoist the bairn on your shoulders and help him on the way. He needs you yet. For the sake of the little feet that wore them, laddie—for the sake of the feet, you'll open the door?”

This was verily Margaret’s hour. The triumph of mother love was complete. Handing the shoes with reverence, Jacob restored them to her keeping. “You shall have your way, wife,” said he. “If Robert likes to lift the sneck, he’ll find the door open, and—and I don’t think it’s ever been bolted yet.”

With this he hurriedly left the room, but half w'ay down the stairs inspiration checked his steps and sent him back tohis wife’s. bedside. “I’ll be away to Bransty in the morning, and ye shall have the best black silk that money can buy; an’ if fwolk like to think that it’s a bit present fra Robert —well, we’ll just let ’em think.”


It was a fierce winter that fell upon the country that year, and the men of the dales have marked it in big, bold lines on the calendar that memory keeps. Long before the autumn winds had made an end of their dirge, Scawfell was wearing his winter cap, and when the news came over the fells that Black Sail was blocked we knew that we were in for a hard time. Bitter were the wdnds that assailed us, blinding were the sheets of snow, and as the end of it all that tempest for wrhich, when w7e tell of it, we have no prefix of degree. It is not known to us as “The Great Storm,” but simply as “The Storm.” When even the railway arches on the coast line outside the dale were filled from base to crowm : w7hen the hollow7 wherein Margery Bannister lived was buried so that nothing w7as left of Margery’s cottage save the chimneys ; when Robert Musgrave lost one hundred and fifty sheep; when even7 dyke in the lowlands w7as hidden, and at Burnfoot every household had to dig its way out.

As David Branthwaite drove with difficulty through the defile into which the dale narrows at its head, he could hear the shepherds at their work upon the heights gathering in the flocks which had fled to the hills. Give our

mountain sheep their freedom, and they will never wait to 'be buried in the valley; they prefer to face the tempest on the topmost crags. Muffled and dim, the cries of men and the baying of hounds drifted down the steep fell-sides, and after a brief struggle the doctor surrendered.

“It's not a bit o' use, Meg,” hebawled to his storm-battered horse ; “I mustn’t be sitting in my gig in comfort when a helping hand may be wanted up there, so we’ll just see how Jacob Steele’s getting along.” Half an hour later Meg was snugly housed

in Jacob’s stable, and her master was hard at work rounding up the stricken flocks; and when, after the labor of hours, the last of the sheep had been penned, the doctor was fain to agree with the farmer that he “would nivver win through to The Green,” and that a night at Grayrigg must be his portion.

With the passing of the hours, the storm grew in fury. Shrieking, howling, roaring, the wind swept through the passes; high overhead it billowed from rock to rock with the boom of thunder, and the snow was driven be-

fore it in blinding sheets, and swirled and piled about everything that gave it hold until the drifts were built higher than the height of a man.

Seated by the wide-mouthed kitchen hearth', Margaret made a fine pretence of knitting, but her needles lay mostly idle in her lap; and, as for Jacob, he was for ever stirring about, now pacing the floor, but oftenest going out into the porch to note the movements of the tempest. “I’ve been thinking I heard a cry across dale,” he explained after a longer absence than usual, and, although he was sure it “was nowt bit a shepherd call,” he was off again the moment he had got the chill off his finger-tips. Almost immediately he was back again with a shout that brought his wife and Branthwaite to their feet. “It’s true, doctor, it’s quite true. There’s some poor body out yonder in t’ snaw, and I’m off to seek him.”

“Ay! And I’m coming with you. This is likely to be a doctor’s job.” David was already wrestling with his greatcoat. “And we must have Jossy Ferguson along wi’ us, and we’ll give Lanty Armstrong and Ben Dodgson a call if we can get near their houses.”

Heavily coated, wrapped also in thick shawls and armed with ironpointed sticks, the three men turned speedily out into the tempest, Margaret’s benediction in their ears: “I’d bid you bide if I dare—but it’s a mother’s bairn that needs ye—and God bring ye safely back!"

“I’m none too sure aboot my bearings,” Jacob shouted as he whistled his two sheep-dogs across the croft, “but t’ cry seemed to come fra down there”—he pointed straight across the dale—“somewhere Birker way. Dogs ’ll be a fine help if he calls again.”

It was a vain hope, however. All the world seemed to be full of sound, but it was the raving of the tempest; the clamor of distress was hushed. And the rescue also appeared to be impossible. Out on the fells the snow was piled in drifts, huge and deep and

dense, and even the winds appeared to be clouds of snow, so thickly massed were the sweeping flakes and spikes. One man on such a night would have been helpless, but foot by foot the doctor and his comrades fought their way. At the end of an hour’s desperate struggle the dogs gave them a new lead; and there, under the shelter of a mighty rock, they came upon the wayfarer, over whose body the storm was spreading a winding sheet of spotless purity. Branthwaite knelt beside him. A pause of awful solemnity followed. The doctor burst into a passion of speech.

“It’s you and me against death, lads. Here, Lanty, get a grip o’ this bottle. Now then, the rest o’ ye, give me a lift with him. We’ll have him on his feet, and if we don’t shake life intil him it’ll not be our fault.”

Now, with regard to the other happenings the farmer of Grayrigg has a somewhat hazy recollection. He remembers that many orders were given by the doctor, and that all were faithfully carried out, but the fact that has fastened itself on his mind is this— that w7hen at last the stranger spoke he uttered the one word “Father,” and that afterwards the voice of the doctor cut loud and exultant into the thunder of the storm, “Eh, man, this is mighty. It’s your own laddie you’ve saved this night.”

He is also apt to make light of that second struggle, when upon a stretcher made of coats and staves, they carried the prodigal across the breast of the fell, but never will he forget the face of his wife when her son was given back to her. “Love,” said he to the doctor afterwards, “is just past telling.”

Margaret met them at the door, standing outside in the driving snow. Lanty Armstrong had given her the message which David had sent so that she might be spared a harder shock. When he saw7 her, darkly drawn against the flood of light, the doctor roared that other message for

which she waited in trembling hope. “Ye’re laddie’s right, Margaret; his mother’s nursing is all he wants.”

Himself he was not so sure, but it was ever Branthwaite’s way to beat back dispair with the offer of hope until defeat could no longer be concealed. Far into the night they toiled in the old-fashioned bedroom, just the three of them, with now and again a maid showing a frightened face ; the doctor with his coat off, sleeves rolled up, perspiration gleaming in beads upon his brow ; the others waiting, helping, praying. Thus the new day entered, and, as the grandfather’s clock downstairs struck three, Robert Steele came back from the Land of Silence.

Full of wonder, his eyes wandered from point to point. They settled at last upon his mother; he whispered her name, and then “Father.” Margaret stooped and kissed him.

For a spell the room was silent as the moors on a sultry day in June. It was a movement by the doctor that broke it, and when Robert looked on the grizzled face of David Branthwaite memory sprang into fullness of life.

“I remember now,” he said. “I was coming home—and the storm beat me.”

“That’ll do, my laddie,” the doctor growled. “You’ve had enough storm for one night. You may get to sleep now.”

But Robert was not to be silenced so easily, even though speech was a labor. “I was coming home—it was the letter that dragged me. I couldn’t stay away.”

Between the father and the mother a glance of perplexity was exchanged. The doctor busied himself at the table, bending low over his task. Margaret passed her hand gently over her son’s head. “We’ve sent you no letter, my bairn,” s'he said.

“No. It was the doctor. I’ve bronght it with me. I’m going to keep

it for ever. He told me he was glad I’d found wealth and fame. Afterwards he told me that my mother had been ill, but I wasn’t to worry—she was doing nicely. And then—he praised me for—for the devotion I was showing by sending her such beautiful gifts. And I’d given her nothing but shame and neglect! He told me how my name was ever on your lips, yours and my father’s. How through all the dale I was being held up as a model of what a son ought to be. He said something besides about the saving grace of a pair of baby shoes, but I don’t know what he meant. I understood all the rest—saw how you were trying to shield my name—it broke down all my empty pride. I didn’t want money any longer—I wanted to look into my mother’s face. I didn’t want fame and the applause of men;

I wanted to grip my father’s hand. There was nothing else that counted.' So I came home. They tried' to keep me at Dalefoot, but I couldn’t stay. I’d simply got to get home, and I lost the track—and now I’m going to sleep —a lad again—in my father’s home.”

Margaret sank upon her knees by her son’s bedside, her face buried in her hands. Gently the doctor tip-toed from the room, and when Jacob followed he laid a heavy hand on the farmer’s shoulder and growled a fearsome threat. “Man, if ye say but one word o’ thanks, I’ll strike ye off my list.”

Still it was Jacob to whom the honor of the last word fell. “I’m not going to thank ye, David Branthwaite,” he said, ’’for that’s a thing that’s beyond the power of tongues. And I’m not thinking that Margaret ’ll put ye to con-fusion, but I’se warrant that for the rest of her days your name ’ll not be missing fra her prayers.”

And as the doctor himself has since observed, “What mair can a man desire ?”