The card dangled above the old lady's bed. It read GOD IS NEAR but it wasn't like the usual religious text. It didn't have a frame or ornate printing. It was just a strip of cardboard about eight inches long with plain lettering which might have said "No smoking" or "Exit" and it was looped carelessly over an old brass gas bracket so that Miss Stubbs from where she lay could look up at it and read GOD IS NEAR in square black capitals.
There wasn't much more Miss Stubbs could see; perhaps a few feet of privet hedge through the frayed curtains but mainly it was just the cluttered little room which had been her world for so many years.
The room was on the ground floor and in the front of the cottage, and as I came up through the wilderness which had once been a garden I could see the dogs watching me from where they had jumped onto the old lady's bed by the window. And when I knocked on the door the place almost erupted with their barking. It was always like this. I had been visiting regularly for over a year and the pattern never changed; the furious barking, then Mrs. Broadwith, who looked after Miss Stubbs, would push all the animals but my patient into the back kitchen and open the door and I would go in and see Miss Stubbs in the corner in her bed with the card hanging over it.
She had been there for a long time and would never get up again. But she never mentioned her illness and pain to me; all her concern was for her three dogs and two cats.
Today it was old Prince and I was worried about him. It was his heart--just about the most spectacular valvular incompetence I had ever heard. He was waiting for me as I came in, pleased to see me, his long fringed tail waving gently.
The sight of that tail used to make me think there must be a lot of Irish setter in Prince but I was inclined to change my mind as I worked my way forward over the bulging black and brown body to the shaggy head and upstanding Alsatian-type ears-well, at least he kept one of them upright but the other tipped over at the top. Miss Stubbs often used to call him "Mr. Heinz" and though he may not have had 57 varieties in him, his hybrid vigor had stood him in good stead. With his heart he should have been dead long ago.
"I thought I'd best give you a ring, Mr. Herriot," Mrs. Broadwith said. She was a comfortable, elderly widow with a square, ruddy face contrasting sharply with the pinched features on the pillow. "He's been coughing right bad this week and this morning he was a bit staggery. Still eats well, though."
"I bet he does." I ran my hands over the rolls of fat on the ribs. "It would take something really drastic to put old Prince off his grub."
Miss Stubbs laughed from the bed and the old dog, his mouth wide, eyes dancing, seemed to be joining in the joke. I put my stethoscope over his heart and listened, knowing well what I was going to hear. They say the heart is supposed to go "Lub-dup, lub-dup," but Prince's went "swish-swoosh, swish-swoosh." There seemed to be nearly as much blood leaking back as was being pumped into the circulatory system. And another thing, the "swish-swoosh" was a good bit faster than last time; he was on oral digitalis but it wasn't quite doing its job.
Gloomily I moved the stethoscope over the rest of the chest. Like all old dogs with a chronic heart weakness he had an ever-present bronchitis and I listened without enthusiasm to the symphony of whistles, babbles, squeaks and bubbles which signaled the workings of Prince's lungs. The old dog stood very erect and proud, his tail still waving slowly. He always took it as a tremendous compliment when I examined him and there was no doubt he was enjoying himself now. Fortunately his was not a very painful ailment.
Straightening up, I patted his head, and he responded immediately by trying to put his paws on my chest. He didn't quite make it and even that slight exertion started his ribs heaving and his tongue lolling. I gave him an intramuscular injection of digitalin and another of morphine hydrochloride, which he accepted with apparent pleasure as part of the game.
"I hope that will steady his heart and breathing, Miss Stubbs. You'll find he'll be a bit dopey for the rest of the day and that will help, too. Carry on with the tablets as before, and I'm going to leave you some more medicine for his bronchitis."
The next stage of the visit began now as Mrs. Broadwith brought in a cup of tea and the rest of the animals were let out of the kitchen. There were Ben, a Sealyham, and Sally, a cocker spaniel, and they started a deafening barking contest with Prince. They were closely followed by the cats, Arthur and Susie, who stalked in gracefully and began to rub themselves against my trouser legs.
It was the usual scenario for the many cups of tea I had drunk with Miss Stubbs under the little card which dangled above her bed.
"How are you today?" I asked.
"Oh, much better," she replied and immediately, as always, changed the subject.
Mostly she liked to talk about her pets and the ones she had known right back to her girlhood. She spoke a lot, too, about the days when her family were alive. She loved to describe the escapades of her three brothers and today she showed me a photograph which Mrs. Broadwith had found at the bottom of a drawer.
I took it from her and three young men in the knee breeches and little round caps of the eighteen-nineties smiled up at me from the yellowed old print; they all held long church warden pipes and the impish humor in their expressions came down undimmed over the years.
"My word, they look really bright lads, Miss Stubbs," I said.
"Oh, they were young rips!" she exclaimed. She threw back her head and laughed and for a moment her face was radiant, transfigured by her memories.
The things I had heard in the village came back to me; about the prosperous father and his family who lived in the big house many years ago. Then the foreign investments which crashed and the sudden change in circumstances. "When t'owd feller died he was about skint," one old man had said. "There's not much brass there now."
Probably just enough brass to keep Miss Stubbs and her animals alive and to pay Mrs. Broadwith. Not enough to keep the garden dug or the house painted or for any of the normal little luxuries.
And, sitting there, drinking my tea, with the dogs in a row by the bedside and the cats making themselves comfortable on the bed itself, I felt as I had often felt before--a bit afraid of the responsibility I had. The one thing which brought some light into the life of the brave old woman was the transparent devotion of this shaggy bunch whose eyes were never far from her face. And the snag was that they were all elderly.
There had, in fact, been four dogs originally, but one of them, a truly ancient yellow Labrador, had died a few months previously. And now I had the rest of them to look after and none of them less than ten years old.
They were perky enough but all showing some of the signs of old age; Prince with his heart, Sally beginning to drink a lot of water which made me wonder if her kidneys were giving trouble; Ben growing steadily thinner with his nephritis. I couldn't give him new kidneys and I hadn't much faith in the tablets I had prescribed. Another peculiar thing about Ben was that I was always having to clip his claws; they grew at an extraordinary rate.
The cats were better, though Susie was a bit scraggy and I kept up a morbid kneading of her furry abdomen for signs of lymphosarcoma. Arthur was the best of the bunch; he never seemed to ail anything beyond a tendency for his teeth to attract tartar.
This must have been in Miss Stubbs's mind because, when I had finished my tea, she asked me to look at him. I hauled him across the bedspread and opened his mouth.
"Yes, there's a bit of the old trouble there. Might as well fix it while I'm here."
Arthur was a huge, gray neutered tom, a living denial of all those theories that cats are cold-natured, selfish, and the rest. His fine eyes, framed in the widest cat face I have ever seen, looked out on the world with an all-embracing benevolence and tolerance. His every movement was marked by immense dignity.
As I started to scrape his teeth his chest echoed with a booming purr like a distant outboard motor. There was no need for anybody to hold him; he sat there placidly and moved only once-when I was using forceps to crack off a tough piece of tartar from a back tooth and accidentally nicked his gum. He casually raised a massive paw as if to say "Have a care, chum," but his claws were sheathed. * * *
My next visit was less than a month later and was in response to an urgent summons from Mrs. Broadwith at six o'clock in the evening. Ben had collapsed. I jumped straight into my car and in less than ten minutes was threading my way through the overgrown grass in the front garden with just two dogs watching from their window. The barking broke out as I knocked, but Ben's was absent. As I went into the little room I saw the old dog lying on his side, very still, by the bed.
D.o.a. is what we write in the day book. Dead On Arrival. Just three words but they covered all kinds of situations--the end of milk fever cows, bloated bullocks, calves in fits. And tonight they meant that I wouldn't be clipping old Ben's claws anymore.
"Well, it was quick, Miss Stubbs. I'm sure the old chap didn't suffer at all." My words sounded lame and ineffectual.
The old lady was in full command of herself. No tears, only a fixity of expression as she looked down from the bed at her companion for so many years. My idea was to get him out of the place as quickly as possible and I pulled a blanket under him and lifted him up. As I was moving away, Miss Stubbs said, "Wait a moment." With an effort she turned on her side and gazed at Ben. Still without changing expression, she reached out and touched his head lightly. Then she lay back calmly as I hurried from the room.
In the back kitchen I had a whispered conference with Mrs. Broadwith. "I'll run down t'village and get Fred Manners to come and bury him," she said. "And if you've got time, could you stay with the old lady while I'm gone. Talk to her, like, it'll do her good."
I went back and sat down by the bed. Miss Stubbs looked out of the window for a few moments, then turned to me. "You know, Mr. Herriot," she said casually, "it will be my turn next."
"What do you mean?"
"Well, tonight Ben has gone and I'm going to be the next one. I just know it."
"Oh, nonsense! You're feeling a bit low, that's all. We all do when something like this happens." But I was disturbed. I had never heard her even hint at such a thing before.
"I'm not afraid," she said. "I know there's something better waiting for me. I've never had any doubts." There was silence between us as she lay calmly looking up at the card on the gas bracket.
Then the head on the pillow turned to me again. "I have only one fear." Her expression changed with startling suddenness as if a mask had dropped. The brave face was almost unrecognizable. A kind of terror flickered in her eyes and she quickly grasped my hand.
"It's the dogs and cats, Mr. Herriot. I'm afraid I might never see them when I'm gone which worries me so. You see, I know I'll be reunited with my parents and brothers, but ... but ..." She gazed at the two cats curled up at the end of her bed.
"Well, why not with your animals?"
"That's just it." She rocked her head on the pillow and for the first time I saw tears on her cheeks. "They say animals have no souls."
"Oh, I've read it and I know a lot of religious people believe it."
"Well, I don't believe it." I patted the hand which still grasped mine. "If having a soul means being able to feel love and loyalty and gratitude, then animals are better off than a lot of humans. You've nothing to worry about there."
"Oh, I hope you're right. Sometimes I lie at night thinking about it."
"I know I'm right, Miss Stubbs, and don't you argue with me. They teach us vets all about animals' souls."
The tension left her face and she laughed with a return of her old spirit. "I'm sorry to bore you with this and I'm not going to talk about it again. But before you go, I want you to be absolutely honest with me. I don't want reassurance from you--just the truth. I know you are very young but please tell me-what are your beliefs? Will my animals go with me?"
She stared intently into my eyes. I shifted in my chair and swallowed once or twice.
"Miss Stubbs, I'm afraid I'm a bit foggy about all this," I said. "But I'm absolutely certain of one thing. Wherever you are going, they are going too."
She still stared at me but her face was calm again. "Thank you, Mr. Herriot, I know you are being honest with me. That is what you really believe, isn't it?"
"I do believe it," I said. "With all my heart I believe it." * * *
It must have been about a month later and it was entirely by accident that I learned I had seen Miss Stubbs for the last time. When a lonely, penniless old woman dies people don't rush up to you in the street to tell you. I was on my rounds and a farmer happened to mention that the cottage in Corby village was up for sale.
"But what about Miss Stubbs?" I asked.
"Oh, went off sudden about three weeks ago. House is in a bad state, they say--nowt been done at it for years."
"Mrs. Broadwith isn't staying on, then?"
"Nay, I hear she's staying at t'other end of village."
"Do you know what's happened to the dogs and cats?"
"What dogs and cats?"
I cut my visit short. And I didn't go straight home, though it was nearly lunchtime. Instead I urged my complaining little car at top speed to Corby and asked the first person I saw where Mrs. Broadwith was living. It was a tiny house but attractive and Mrs. Broadwith answered my knock herself.
"Oh, come in, Mr. Herriot. It's right good of you to call." I went inside and we sat facing each other across a scrubbed tabletop.
"Well, it was sad about the old lady," she said.
"Yes, I've only just heard."
"Any road, she had a peaceful end. Just slept away at finish."
"I'm glad to hear that."
Mrs. Broadwith looked round the room. "I was real lucky to get this place--it's just what I've always wanted."
I could contain myself no longer. "What's happened to the animals?" I blurted out.
"Oh, they're in t'garden," she said calmly. "I've got a grand big stretch at back." She got up and opened the door andwitha surge of relief I watched my old friends pour in.
Arthur was on my knee in a flash, arching himself ecstatically against my arm while his outboard motor roared softly above the barking of the dogs. Prince, wheezy as ever, tail fanning the air, laughed up at me delightedly between barks.
"They look great, Mrs. Broadwith. How long are they going to be here?"
"They're here for good. I think just as much about them as t'old lady ever did and I couldn't be parted from them. They'll have a good home with me as long as they live."
I looked at the typical Yorkshire country face, at the heavy cheeks with their grim lines belied by the kindly eyes. "This is wonderful," I said. "But won't you find it just a bit ... er ... expensive to feed them?"
"Nay, you don't have to worry about that. I 'ave a bit put away."
"Well, fine, fine, and I'll be looking in now and then to see how they are. I'm through the village every few days." I got up and started for the door.
Mrs. Broadwith held up her hand. "There's just one thing I'd like you to do before they start selling off the things at the cottage. Would you please pop in and collect what's left of your medicines. They're in t'front room."
I took the key and drove along to the other end of the village. As I pushed open the rickety gate and began to walk through the tangled grass, the front of the cottage looked strangely lifeless without the faces of the dogs at the window; and when the door creaked open and I went inside the silence was like a heavy pall.
Nothing had been moved. The bed with its rumpled blankets was still in the corner. I moved around, picking up half-empty bottles, a jar of ointment, the cardboard box with old Ben's tablets-a lot of good they had done him.
When I had got everything I looked slowly round the little room. I wouldn't be coming here anymore and at the door I paused and read for the last time the card which hung over the empty bed.