Vets Might Fly, page 11
"You can't? Why, "'barn's good enough to see, isn't it?"
"The bare?" I pointed a shaking finger at the heights.
"You mean that building
The heifer's surely not in there!"
"Aye, she is. Ah keep a lot o'me young beasts in them spots."
"But . . . but . . ." I was gabbling now.
"We'll never get up there! That snow's three feet deep!"
He blew smoke pleasurably from his nostrils.
"We will, don't the worry. Just hang on a second."
He disappeared into the stable and after a few moments I peeped inside.
He was saddling a fat brown cob and I stared as he led the little
animal out, climbed stiffly on to a box and mounted.
Looking down at me he waved cheerfully.
"Well, let's be goin'. Have you got your stuff?"
Bewilderedly I filled my pockets. A bottle of bloat mixture, a trochar
and cannula, a packet of gentian and nux vomica. I did it in the dull
knowledge that there was no way I could get up that hill.
On the other side of the road an opening had been dug and Mr.Stokill
rode through I slithered in his wake, loo king up hopelessly at the
great smooth wilderness rearing above us.
Mr Stokill turned in the saddle.
"Get haud on "'tail," he said.
"I beg your pardon?"
"Get a haud of 'is tail."
As in a dream I seized the bristly hairs.
"No, both 'ends," the farmer said patiently.
"That's grand, lad. Now 'ang on."
He clicked his tongue, the cob plodded resolutely forward and so did I.
And it was easy! The whole world fell away beneath us as we soared
upwards and leaning back and enjoying it I watched the little valley
unfold along its twisting length until I could see away into the main
Dale with the great hills billowing round and white into the dark
At the barn the farmer dismounted.
"All right, young man?"
"All right, Mr Stokill." As I followed him into the little building I
smiled to myself. This old man had once told me that he left school
when he was twelve, whereas I had spent most of the twenty-four years
of my life in study. Yet when I looked back on the last hour or so I
could come to only one conclusion.
He knew a lot more than I did.
Chapter Ten I had plenty of company for Christmas that year. We were
billeted in the Grand Hotel, the massive Victorian pile which dominated
Scar borough in turreted splendour from its eminence above the sea, and
the big dining room was packed with several hundred shouting airmen.
The iron discipline was relaxed for a few hours to let the Yuletide
spirit run free.
It was so different from other Christmases I had known that it ought to
have remained like a beacon in my mind, but I know that my strongest
memory of Christmas will always be bound up with a certain little
I first saw her when I was called to see one of Mrs Ainsworth's dogs,
and I looked in some surprise at the furry black creature sitting
before the fire.
"I didn't know you had a cat," I said.
The lady smiled.
"We haven't, this is Debbie."
"Yes, at least that's what we call her. She's a stray. Comes here two
or three times a week and we give her some food. I don't know where
she lives but I believe she spends a lot of her time around one of the
farms along the road."
"Do you ever get the feeling that she wants to stay with you?"
"No." Mrs Ainsworth shook her head.
"She's a timid little thing. Just creeps in, has some food then flits
away. There's something so appealing about her but she doesn't seem to
want to let me or anybody into her life."
I looked again at the little cat.
"But she isn't just having food today."
"That's right. It's a funny thing but every now and again she slips
through here into the lounge and sits by the fire for a few minutes.
It's as though she was giving herself a treat."
"Yes ... I see what you mean." There was no doubt there was something
unusual in the attitude of the little animal. She was sitting bolt
upright on the thick rug which lay before the fireplace in which the
coals glowed and flamed.
She made no effort to curl up or wash herself or do any thing other
than gaze quietly ahead. And there was something in the dusty black of
her coat, the half-wild scrawny look of her, that gave me a clue. This
was a special event in her life, a rare and wonderful thing; she was
lapping up a comfort undreamed of in her daily existence.
As I watched she turned, crept soundlessly from the room and was
"That's always the way with Debbie," Mrs Ainsworth laughed.
"She never stays more than ten minutes or so, then she's off."
She was a plumpish, pleasant-faced woman in her forties and the kind of
client veterinary surgeons dream of; well off, generous, and the owner
of three cosseted Basset hounds. And it only needed the habitually
mournful expressions of one of the dogs to deepen a little and I was
round there post haste. Today one of the Bassets had raised its paw
and scratched its ear a couple of times and that was enough to send its
mistress scurrying to the 'phone in great alarm.
So my visits to the Ainsworth home were frequent but undemanding, and I
had ample opportunity to look out for the little cat which had
intrigued me. On one occasion I spotted her nibbling daintily from a
saucer at the kitchen door.
As I watched she turned and almost floated on light footsteps into the
hall then through the lounge door.
The three Bassets were already in residence, draped snoring on the
fireside rug, but they seemed to be used to Debbie because two of them
sniffed her in a bored manner and the third merely cocked a sleepy eye
at her before flopping back on the rich pile.
Debbie sat among them in her usual posture; upright, intent, gazing
absorbedly into the glowing coals. This time I tried to make friends
with her. I approached her carefully but she leaned away as I
stretched out my hand. However, by patient wheedling and soft talk I
managed to touch her and gently stroked her cheek with one finger.
There was a moment when she responded by putting her head on one side
and rubbing back against my hand but soon she was ready to leave. Once
outside the house she darted quickly along the road then through a gap
in a hedge and the last I saw was the little black figure flitting over
the rain-swept grass of a field.
"I wonder where she goes," I murmured half to myself. ~] Mrs Ainsworth
appeared at my elbow.
"That's something we've never been able to find out."
It must have been nearly three months before I heard from Mrs
Ainsworth, and in fact I had begun to wonder at the Bassets' long
symptom less run when she came on the 'phone.
It was Christmas morning and she was apologetic.
"Mr Herriot, I'm so sorry to bother you today of all days. I should
think you want a rest at Christmas like anybody else
politeness could not hide the distress in her voice.
"Please don't worry about that," I said.
"Which one is it this time?"
"It's not one of the dogs. It's . . . Debbie."
"Debbie? She's at your house now?"
"Yes . . . but there's something wrong. Please come quickly."
Driving through the market place I thought again that Darrow by on
Christmas Day was like Dickens come to life; the empty square with the
snow thick on the cobbles and hanging from the eaves of the fretted
lines of roofs; the shops closed and the coloured lights of the
Christmas trees winking at the windows of the clustering houses, warmly
inviting against the cold white bulk of the fells behind.
Mrs Ainsworth's home was lavishly decorated with tinsel and holly, rows
of drinks stood on the sideboard and the rich aroma of turkey and sage
and onion stuffing wafted from the kitchen. But her eyes were full of
pain as she led me through to the lounge.
Debbie was there all right, but this time everything was different. She
wasn't sitting upright in her usual position; she was stretched quite
motionless on her side, and huddled close to her lay a tiny black
I looked down in bewilderment.
"What's happened here?"
"It's the strangest thing," Mrs Ainsworth replied.
"I haven't seen her for several weeks then she came in about two hours
ago sort of staggered into the kitchen, and she was carrying the kitten
in her mouth. She took it through to the lounge and laid it on the rug
and at first I was amused. But I could see all was not well because
she sat as she usually does, but for a long time over an hour then she
lay down like this and she hasn't moved."
I knelt on the rug and passed my hand over Debbie's neck and ribs. She
was thinner than ever, her fur dirty and mud-caked. She did not resist
as I gently opened her mouth. The tongue and mucus membranes were
abnormally pale and the lips ice-cold against my fingers. When I
pulled down her eyelid and saw the dead white conjunctive a knell
sounded in my mind.
I palpated the abdomen with a grim certainty as to what I would find
and there was no surprise, only a dull sadness as my fingers closed
around a hard lobulated mass deep among the viscera. Massive
lymphosarcoma. Terminal and hopeless. I put my stethoscope on her
heart and listened to the increasingly faint, rapid beat then I
straightened up and sat on the rug loo king sightlessly into the
fireplace, feeling the warmth of the flames on my face.
Mrs Ainsworth's voice seemed to come from afar.
"Is she ill, Mr Herriot?"
"Yes . . . yes, I'm afraid so. She has a malignant growth." I stood
"There's absolutely nothing I can do. I'm sorry."
"Oh!" Her hand went to her mouth and she looked at me wide-eyed. When
at last she spoke her voice trembled.
"Well, you must put her to sleep immediately.
It's the only thing to do. We can't let her suffer."
"Mrs Ainsworth," I said.
"There's no need. She's dying now in a coma far beyond suffering."
She turned quickly away from me and was very still as she fought with
her emotions. Then she gave up the struggle and dropped on her knees
"Oh, poor little thing!" she sobbed and stroked the cat's head again
and again as the tears fell unchecked on the matted fur.
"What she must have come through.
I feel I ought to have done more for her."
For a few moments I was silent, feeling her sorrow, so discordant among
the bright seasonal colours of this festive room. Then I spoke
"Nobody could have done more than you," I said.
"Nobody could have been kinder."
"But I'd have kept her here in comfort. It must have been terrible out
there in the cold when she was so desperately ill I daren't think about
it. And having kittens, too I . . . I wonder how many she did
"I don't suppose we'll ever know. Maybe just this one. It happens
sometimes. And she brought it to you, didn't she?" : "Yes . . .
that's right . . . she did . . . she did." Mrs Ainsworth reached out
and lifted the bedraggled black morsel. She smoothed her finger along
the muddy fur and the tiny mouth opened in a soundless miaow.
"Isn't it strange? She was dying and she brought her kitten here. And
on Christmas Day."
I bent and put my hand on Debbie's heart. There was no beat.
I looked up.
"I'm afraid she's gone." I lifted the small body, almost feather
light, wrapped it in the sheet which had been spread on the rug and
took it out to the car.
When I came back Mrs Ainsworth was still stroking the kitten. The
tears had dried on her cheeks and she was bright-eyed as she looked at
"I've never had a cat before," she said.
"Well it looks as though you've got one now."
And she certainly had. That kitten grew rapidly into a sleek handsome
cat with a boisterous nature which earned him the name of Buster. In
every way he was the opposite to his timid little mother. Not for him
the privations of the secret outdoor life; he stalked the rich carpets
of the Ainsworth home like a king and the ornate collar he always wore
added something more to his presence.
On my visits I watched his development with delight but the occasion
which stays in my mind was the following Christmas Day, a year from his
I was out on my rounds as usual. I can't remember when I haven't had
to work on Christmas Day because the animals have never got round to
recognising it as a holiday; but with the passage of the years the
vague resentment I used to feel has been replaced by philosophical
acceptance. After all, as I tramped around the hillside barns in the
frosty air I was working up a better appetite for my turkey than all
the millions lying in bed or slumped by the fire, and this was aided by
the innumerable aperitifs I received from the hospitable farmers.
I was on my way home, bathed in a rosy glow. I had consumed several
whiskies the kind the inexpert Yorkshire men pour as though it was
ginger ale - and I had finished with a glass of old Mrs Earnshaw's
rhubarb wine which had seared its way straight to my toenails. I heard
the cry as I was passing Mrs Ainsworth's house.
"Merry Christmas, Mr Herriot!" She was letting a visitor out of the
front door; and she waved at me gaily.
"Come in and have a drink to warm you up."
I didn't need warming up but I pulled in to the kerb without
hesitation. In the house there was all the festive cheer of last year
and the same glorious whiff of sage and onion which set my gastric
juices surging. But there was not the sorrow; there was Buster.
He was darting up to each of the dogs in turn, ears pricked, eyes
blazing with devilment, dabbing a paw at them then streaking away. :
Mrs Ainsworth laughed.
"You know, he plagues the life out o
She was right. To the Bassets, Buster's arrival was rather like the
intrusion of an irreverent outsider into an exclusive London club. For
a long time they had led a life of measured grace; regular sedate walks
with their mistress, superb food in ample quantities and long snoring
sessions on the rugs and armchairs.
Their days followed one upon another in unruffled calm. And then came
He was dancing up to the youngest dog again, sideways this time, head
on ~ ari ~ ~ h ~ Wh~ bc scarred boxing with both paws it was too much]
even for the Basset. He dropped his dignity and rolled over with the
cat in a brief wrestling match "I want to show you something." Mrs
Ainsworth lifted a hard rubber ball from the sideboard and went out to
the garden, followed by Buster. She threw the ball across the lawn and
the cat bounded after it over the frosted grass, the muscles rippling
under the black sheen of his coat. He seized the ball in his teeth,