SHORT STORIES

A Pair of Spendthrifts

A Story of the Cumberland Dales

Oswald Wildridge September 1 1910
SHORT STORIES

A Pair of Spendthrifts

A Story of the Cumberland Dales

Oswald Wildridge September 1 1910

A Pair of Spendthrifts

A Story of the Cumberland Dales

Oswald Wildridge

HE was a tourist, by all the marks of the craft, and when he halted by the bridge at Burnfoot with a request for direction on his way, he informed us that ours was the third dale he had traversed since sunrise. He had also passed through the wilds of Black Sail—which may account in part for certain impressions of life that he had gathered—and he stated with pride that he had “seen everything and missed nothing.” Afterwards, he perched himself on the parapet of the bridge, and favored us with a homily on the influence of environment, from which we learned that the severity of the mountains must make also for severity of character. He told us something of the slum life of great cities, and showed us how, by a natural process, the people who dwelled within their squalid depths were as graceless as their homes, their conduct void of beauty, and their hearts empty of love. He then proceeded to construct what he called “a parallel,” and, swinging his pointing finger around the amphitheatre from Scawfell Pike to Crinkle Crags, he demonstrated to us how the men of the hill country must be strong men, but also hard and barren of all tenderness.

He was a young man, this tourist body, with a fine gift of speech, a brand new alpenstock, and Henry Jenkinson’s “Guide to the Lakes,” and we listened to him with the humility we always rendered to the voice of instruction ; but when he had gone 88

upon his way to explore the heights of Wrynose Pass we thought with gratitude of someof the men and women living their lives upon the foothills and in the inner solitudes of the fells, of Margaret Steele, of Grayrigg, of John Fletcher, of Hunday, of David Branthwaite, our doctor, whose manner was certainly as rough as the hills, but whose heart was as tender as that of the gentlest of the women. Also, we wondered whether it might be that in the slums of the great cities Love was, after all, more powerful than squalor and distress.

While we debated the problem, who should drive around the bend but David Branthwaite himself ; and when he pulled up for a word, Andrew Matterson, of Nepghyll, mentioned the revelations made by the discursive tourist. David listened with obvious impatience, growled something about a “featherheaded gommerai,” and declared that in the whole of the dale he was only acquainted with one really hard case—Martin Dockwray, of Brackenthwaite—and he was not even certain about the depth of Martin’s hardness.

_ “But there,” he added, “I’ve no time to stay and listen to such stuff. I’ve a mighty long round just now, what with Nicholson’s work on top of my own. I’ve the full length of Kirkdale to go yet, with a call on the little schoolmistress at Down-in-theDale at the end of it.”

And then, anticipating an assured inquiry, he added: “The lassie’s bad,

and to-day I’ve got a hard job before me—the hardest of all next to telling a body that there’s no hope for the one that canna be spared. I’ve got to pronounce sentence of banishment. It takes a strong man to stand the winters we get up here, and if she’s to keep her life she’ll have to leave the dale.”

In David’s day Kirkdale was a law unto itself in the schooling of its children. At the Twin Hamlets we had no difficulty, for our dale is one of the kindly ones, with a fine spread of homes on the foothills and a cluster in the valley itself, so that the school is large enough to carry a schoolhouse by its side. But over on the further side of the Screes the homes of Kirkdale are widely scattered; all told, there is only a handful of them, and in those other days the dalesfolk met the demands of the situation by making a portion of their payment in kind. A homeless wanderer, the teacher passed from house to house, and when he had been entertained for a term at each one, he began the circuit of the dale afresh. It was a hard life, even for a strong man, though not without abundant compensation ; and when the men in authority promoted a slender slip of a girl from the south country to be the first schoolmistress of Kirkdale, we were stricken with amazement, and predicted disaster. There was offence also, for certain of the dalesfolk were persuaded that they were being treated with scorn, and at many firesides there were heard the mutterings of revolt.

As a matter of course, the spirit of opposition extended from the system to the individual, and Joan Naylor was threatened with a show of the cold shoulder because she was coming to attempt the work that only a man could perform. Never, however, did rebellion have so short a life. As one of the leaders of the movement, Thomas Fairish was deputed to meet the stranger at Dale foot, and it was generally agreed that if any man was qualified to “put the madam in her proper place,” and show her that

“she’d cum where she wasn't wantit,” Thomas was the one. But when Thomas found himself looking down into the wistful face of a tired and delicate girl he remembered his own daughter, and instead of a stern “Good-day, ma’am,” it was a case of ‘T’se glad to see you.” Afterwards he tucked her snugly in his gig, and when they passed through Nether Kirkdale he was telling her that she had come to a hard place, but the dalesfolk would do their best to smooth the road for her.

It was arranged that Joan should spend her first fortnight with Elizabeth Key at Down-in-the-Dale, and when the gig pulled up Elizabeth opened her door, armed with a dour manner and a batter}' of frigid words ; but somehow the dourness melted, and the words of thinly-veiled hostility became words of the kindliest welcome.

“Eh, my bairn,” she murmured, “thoo does luik tired, and I’se warrantthoo’s hafe famished. Nivver mind your traps. Thomas mun see to them. Just you cum inside and rest yourself, and I’ll have a cup o’ tea ready in neah time.” For the remainder of that eventful evening Joan found herself “mothered,” almost as much as if she had been in her own home, and when her first letter went out of the dale it carried to the mother in the south an assurance that “if her girl wasn’t looked after it wouldn’t be the fault of Elizabeth Key.” Among the others it was agreed by the end of the first week that the new schoolmistress seemed to be a “likeable lassie,” and in the matter of her work judgment was suspended by consent. With a month gone by Joan Naylor could count on an open door at every home and a welcome at every hearth.

After the lapse of days, moreover, we learned that the mother in the south was an invalid and a widow ; it was also noticed that the life of Joan Naylor had no luxuries; that her garments, though neat, bore the marks of hard wear ; that she was a famous hand at giving to an old gown or an

old hat the grace of a new one; and it was observed that on the day she received her salary she never missed a visit to the postoffice at Nether Kirkdale, whence, according to the gossips, a large share of the money earned among the mountains of the north was transferred to the plains of the south. Another incident of note lay in the fact that, by certain devious means, some of the dalespeople managed to obtain the address of the invalid mother, and now and again a hamper carefully packed with real Cumbrian butter, eggs laid on fellside farms, a cut from a native ham, or a chunk from a flitch of homecured bacon, was despatched from Dalefoot, the gift being significant not only of sympathy for a suffering mother, but also testifying to affection for a daughter of quality.

And now, here was David Branthwaite, with his sentence of banishment and the task from which he shrank. ’It was made known to us later on by Elizabeth Key how he managed it, and from that day there was added another link to the chain which bound us to the doctor.

“He’s a masterful man is David Branthwaite,” said Elizabeth, “and a gey rough type with his tongue when he’s got a cross-grained body to deal with; but his faithfulness is as steadfast as the hills, and his tenderness is past the power of words to tell. The schoolmistress says that he minds her most of the shadow of a rock in a weary land.”

II.

One drab November night we gathered around the kitchen hearth at Nepghyll, and for an hour we did our best to extract the marrow from a few political bones. At the end of the hour, however, the talk began to flag, and the gathering was threatened with conversational failure until old Michael Scott, of Ellerkeld, came to the rescue. “I doot,” said Michaei, “that politics isn’t seah verra tempt-

ing to-neet, and I’se thinking we’d better be talking aboot men—they’re oalus interesting.” And then, like the wily being that he was, he added: “I met Peter Waugh to-day, and he toaldme a nice crack aboot t’oald doctor.” This was quite enough. For the rest of the evening, until Mistress Matterson had supper on the board, we discussed David Branthwaite and his mixed manners. And while we all agreed with Michael Scott that David was “the most through-and-througn man in all the dales,” we also agreed with Robinson Graham that he was “a rare mak’ of inconsistencies.” Again and again had we found him professing indifference about many things which really cut him to the quick, and it was said of him that he would sleep like a top over his own troubles and worry through a sleepless night over those of his people.

About the time that the schoolmistress of Kirkdale tendered her resignation, the doctor appeared to strike a new vein of irritability, and there were certain of his patients who declared that there was no pleasing him. It was clear that he had something on his mind, and one day, as he drove out Hardknot way, with Dash in the gig by his side, he gave old Meg a loose rein and took the terrier into his confidence.

“I’ve been a oft too free with my money, laddie,” he said, “and I’m beginning to feel the pinch. • I must really try and save a bit, though saving’s a stiff job at my time o’ life. And I’ve had a lot o’ calls lately. There was that operation on Martha Jackson. Sir Robert’s fee ran to twenty pounds, and I hadn’t the heart to let John know that it cost mair than ten, for I’ll warrant the lad was hard put to it to find that much. I couldn’t stand by and see the woman slip away and leave a houseful o’ bairns, could I, laddie? And the look that John gave me when I told him that Martha would live was worth ten pounds of anybody’s money. Then I bought that new electric contrivance to treat Tossy Adair with. And—oh,

dear me, this want o’ money’s a terrible thing.” Then he smiled grimly. “Wish you and me could only tumble doon a gold-mine, Dash.”

With another mile ground out he began again. “There’s no help for it. I’ll have to call on John Fletcher, though it’s a shame, for I’m always getting my hand into his pocket. Still, he’d be hurt if I didn’t do it, and the little schoolmistress must be given her chance und her mother must be saved from heart-break. So we’ll call it settled, laddie. I think I can manage about twenty pound myself, and tomorrow we’ll away to Hunday and I’ll ask Fletcher for the rest.”

Now it happened that just at this moment he glanced up the flank of the hill on whose breast the house of Brackenthwaite stands, and at once the corners of his lips tightened.

“The selfish carl,” he muttered. “What a power of good lies in his • hands, and he’ll not use it. He’s grown so near that he wouldn’t part with the reck off his porridge if he could help it. He’s just the man I want, but—

The frown upon the doctor’s face flickered into a sort of smile. This was followed by a chuckle of some significance, and David slapped his leg. “I’ll let John Fletcher bide a day or two,” he said; “just while I have a shot at Martin Dockwray.” And then he again addressed himself to the terrier. “Dash, my laddie, to-morrow we’ll have a night out. I’m going to sleep in one of Martin Dockwray’s beds, and you shall stretch on his hearthrug. I’ve done a bit of bloodletting in my time, and now I’m going to see if I can fetch it from a stone.”

Accordingly it happened on the following night that about the hour wherein most of the dalespeople sought their beds, the doctor’s gig lumbered along the lonning to Brackenthwaite, and the doctor demanded the hospitality which no one in the dale ever denied him—a bed for himself, a stall for Meg, and house-room for his dog.

Among the homes of the dale we counted Brackenthwaite a place of quality, and its master might have ruled in our midst, a leader of men, if he would have paid the price which real leadership exacts. Instead, he preferred the way of the selfish life, with no interests outside the boundaries of his own acres, and no love except that which he concentrated on his only child. In his case, as in so many others, fatherhood stood for redemption.

He was perplexed by the doctor’s visit, for he suspected that if David had followed his bent he would have picked an old grandfather’s chair in a farmhouse kitchen rather than a seat of luxury in the Brackenthwaite dining-room ; but it was not until the night was far spent that he delivered himself into his visitor’s hands with a reference to the hardships of the doctor’s life.

“Hard?” David pulled himself together for the blow he had prepared. “Ay, hard enough. Nobody but the doctor knows how hard—but—I canna help thinking that it’s harder for the folk. I tell you what, Martin ; ye should count yourself one of the lucky ones. You’ve had your share of sickness to battle with, but you’ve been spared the agony of poverty, and of all the agonies there’s none so great as sickness and poverty when they go hand in hand. It’s a fearful crucifixion when the best-loved is doon and in want o’ things that cost money and there is no money to buy them with.

“As for the doctoring, it’s simply a heart-break—when I order a woman body to rest if her life has t’ be spared, and there’s a pack of wee bairns calling for every minute of her time and .every ounce of her love, and the mother’s rest means neglect of them. And again, when I tell an over-worked man that it’s no physic he needs, but chickens and soups and jellies to build up his strength, and all the time I ken that when the rent’s paid and the bread-and-butter have been bought there’s varra little left—I tell ye, man-, that at times like these words seem to

be a mockery and doctoring a sham. If it wasn’t for the men with the helping hand I’ve got about me I couldn’t bide it. I’d be running away. Of course, I’ve never bothered you, Martin, but there’s been no disrespect in that. I’ve known full well that you’d be having folks in plenty pulling at you, and there’s reason in everything —even in charity and helpfulness.”

Across the intervening strip of hearth Martin Dockwray threw a look of amazement. For the moment, indeed, resentment was disarmed by perplexity. This was surely a new David Branthwaite that he was entertaining. The old David was a man of the volcanic type—one whose scorn was brutal, whose blows fell hard like the beat of a sledge-hammer; but this was one of the crafty men who dealt in words of subtle irony.

“I’ve got a case on hand just now that’s worrying me a lot.” While Martin wrestled with astonishment, David was off again. “It’s the little schoolmistress of Kirkdale. Mebbe you’ll have heard that Nicholson’s indoors with his bronchitis again, and I’m working his round. She’s a fine lassie, is the schoolmistress, but she’s not tough enough for life in the dale. Our keen winds and the hard round have nearly killed her, and I’m having to send her home till her mother. Worst of it is, the mother herself is a sickly sort of body who never has a day’s health from year-end till yearend ; and, bit by bit, I’ve wormed it out of little Joan that there isn’t enough money for one of them, let alone the pair. You ken her, don’t you ?”

Dockwray nodded his head. He was frowning and fidgeting because of embarrassment, but he was losing none of the story.

“Ay, I thought you couldn’t have missed her. Somehow, she reminds me of your own lassie ; got a glint of the same blue in her eye, the same lilt in her voice; and when she looks up at you she’s got that same wistful little trick that sets your own Mary off so fine. Man, what a mercy it is

you’ve been able to give your bairn all she needs. What if she had been like the schoolmistress, who’ll die if she stays up here and who’s got to starve if she goes home!”

“A hard case, certainly—a very hard case—but,” Dockwray floundered among his words badly, “but there ought to be some way of meeting it. Is there no organization—?” Here he detected the storm-signal as it flashed into being, and covered his blunder with a hasty question, “Is she going home?”

“That I can’t tell ye at present. What she ought to have is a sea voyage; it’d set her up. But that’s out of the question. Next best thing is a month on the south coast, with plenty to eat, nothing to do, and a free mind, so that she could pick up her strength and get fit to earn her living again, and I’m away in the morning to Sunday to beg another Good Samaritan turn from John Fletcher. He has a fine notion of using his money, has John, and I’ve never known him refuse me the help I’ve asked of him. It’s true that I’d rather not do it, for I’m terrible hard on him, but I can’t let the lassie slip away for the want of a few bits of gold and silver.”

So far as direct application to the case of Joan Naylor goes this was David’s last word. For a brief spell he lapsed into silence, only it was not the silence of surrender. After the manner of his own terrier, he was merely changing his grip. When he spoke again he had what appeared to be a new theme.

“It seems like old times, Martin,” he said, “to be sitting in your room with yourself on the other side of the hearth.”

“It’s fine to see you here,” Martin responded genially. “It must be quite a handful of years since you and I spent a night together.”

David gazed reflectively into the fire, as though he might be reckoning up the time. He was a man without mercy when it suited his purpose, and he meant to be very hard now. “I’m just thinking,” he said at last. “I

mind one time—when I was here alone for a while. It’s one of the things that helps me to think well of humanity. That night, as I sat in this very corner, I looked straight into the heart of a woman and saw the store of love that lay within it.” From this point David slipped deeper into the Doric of the dales—one of his tricks when he was strongly moved. “You were upstairs yersel,’ Martin, and your life was hangin’ by a wee bit thread. I’d been with you the day throo and I kenned full well that in another hour you’d be at grips wi’ death. So I slipped away for ten minutes to prepare for what I knew was in front. And by an’ by Margaret followed me intil, the room an’ doon she dropped by me side and, laying her hands on my knees, she tried t’ beg for your life. It was mighty little speech that sorra had left her, but, eh, man, what she did say was full o’ power. T canna do without him, David,’ she cried, and then she told me a bit aboot the wonderful love you’d given her and your devotion to your bairn. And after this her voice grew quite awesome and a new sort of trouble crept intil her bonny eyes and she toald me of her hopes for you. ‘He’s a good man,’ she said, “but away fro his own home he’s been a bit careless, not hard, but a little bit careless. He’s missed his chances— that’s it—he’s just missed his chances —but he’s young yet, and if he’s spared I’m sure he’ll grow into a man of power—One of those who help to keep the world sweet and clean. So, you’ll do your best, David, won’t you, if only to give him his chance?’ Eh, man, it must be fine to ken that there’s one body in the world who thinks of you as Margaret thought of yoursel’.”

Dockwray made no movement. He was sitting with clasped hands, his head down-bent, a man bereft of speech. After a pause David began again :

“I mind another time I sat here. Your bairn had need of me then. And it was yourself who came and begged

me to do that which I was willing enough to do without any asking fra anybody. I mind hoo you paced the floor in your agony of mind and hoo you opened your heart to me. You said you’d been living a selfish sort of life, with little thought for the weary and heavy-laden ootside your own walls, and you promised that if only God would spare the life of your bairn you’d use the power that had been given to you, so that the weary should be helped to their rest and the heavy-laden be eased of their load. No doot you’ve kept the promises you made. I haven’t heard much of your benefactions, I’ll own. but then you’ll be just like other folk I could name, and not be for letting your left hand ken what your right hand is doing.”

One more count in the indictment still remained. It concerned the night whereon Margaret Dockwray went home and the promises that were then renewed; but half-way through the doctor pulled out his watch and then rose sharply to his feet. “Good gracious, man,” he exclaimed, “I’ve talked the morning in. Just get me my candle, and I’ll away to my bed. I dinna ken hoo you can listen till my havers.”

Now it happens that when the master of Brackenthwaite left the doctor at his bedroom door he himself returned to his sitting-room, and there remained until the light of dawn was breaking on the hill?. It also happens that when David resumed his journey in the morning Martin Dockwray had a message for him.

“Thank you for your call. David Branthwaite.” he said, “and I’m hoping that again you will make my home a resting place on your way. When Mary returns she shall come and see you and tell you the same thing. You have reminded be of many things I had forgotten, and I am making no more promises—only, in the matter of the schoolmistress, I have this to say to you: You shall not go to Hunday, nor shall you ask John Fletcher for his help. I have nothing more to say

—you are at least gifted with discernment. Now then, away with you to your sick folk.”

Three days later David again drove up the hill to Brackenthwaite, and again was Martin Dockwray assailed with reproach, only this time the doctor’s manner did not at all agree with the words he used.

“Ye’re a downright spendthrift,” he cried, “and a miserable schemer into the bargain. No doubt you think it was a clever trick going all the way to Netherport to carry out your plots and plans, but I saw through it all, even the mask of the Netherport postmark.”

Here the doctor held out his hand. “I’ll have a wag of your paw, Martin Dockwray, an’ it’s a joy to ken you. Eh, man, but it’s mighty. A voyage to the West Indies and back for the

little schoolmistress and her mother, and a bundle of crinkly-crankle Bank of England notes into the bargain. And you didn’t sign your name till your gift. Just put a bit note inside which said: ‘A Thank-offering from the Man who Forgot.’ You’ve given the dale a rare puzzle; .the folks ’ll spend the winter in trying to guess the name of that man.”

“You must never tell it, David— never,” Dockwray begged. “You have saved me from myself—and it’s just between you and me.”

“I’d like to shout it from the walls of Gath and cry it from the roofs of Ascalon,” the doctor gravely responded; “but—I think I understand ye, and I’ve no fancy for spoiling your reward.” And then, as a sort of disconnected afterthought, he added : “I’m thinking of your wife’s faith, Martin. Margaret kenned her man.”