Stories of the Border Marches - John Lang

Dicky of Kingswood

Your Border ruffian of the good old days was not often a humorist. Life to him was a serious business. When he was not reiving other people's kye, other people were probably reiving his; and as a general rule one is driven to conclude that he was not unlike that famous Scotch terrier whose master attributed the dog's persistently staid and even melancholy disposition to the fact that he "jist couldna get enough o' fechting."

In olden times, "fechting" was the Border man's strong point; but in later, and perhaps less robust, days there were to be found some who took a degenerate pride in getting by craft what their fathers would have taken by force. Of such, in the early days of the eighteenth century, was Dicky of Kingswood. Had he lived a hundred or a hundred and fifty years earlier, Dicky would no doubt have been a first-class reiver, one of the "tail" of some noted Border chieftain, for he lacked neither pluck nor strength. But in his own day he preferred the suaviter in modo  to the fortiter in re; his cunning, indeed, was not unworthy of the hero of that ancient Norse tale, "The Master Thief," and in his misdeeds there was not seldom to be found a spice of humour so disarming that at times his victims were compelled to laugh, and in laughter to forget their just resentment; and with the perishing of resentment, to forego their manifest duty and that satisfaction which virtue should ever feel in the discomfiture of vice. Compounding a felony, we should call it now. And no doubt it was. But in those days, when the King's writ ran with but halting foot through the wild Border hills, perhaps least said was soonest mended.

Kingswood lies just across the river from Staward Peel, but Dicky dwelt generally at the latter place—in former days an almost unassailable stronghold, standing on a bold eminence overlooking Allen Water, some miles to the east of Haltwhistle. Here of old, when beacon-fires blazed on the hill-tops, "each with warlike tidings fraught," flashing their warning of coming trouble from "the false Scottes," the people of these regions were wont to hurry for safety, breathlessly bearing with them whatsoever valuables they prized and had time to save. Many a treasure is said to lie here, buried, and never again dug up, because those who alone knew where to look had perished in defence of the Peel. Truly, if the troubled spirits of those slain ones yet wander, brooding over hidden chattels and lost penates, they are not greatly to be pitied, for a spot more beautiful, one less to be shunned if our spirits must  wander, it would be hard to find in all Northumberland or in all England. Not distant would they be, too, from good company, for away to the north across the Tyne, in a mighty cavern in the rock—below what once was the castle of Sewing Shields—does not local tradition tell that Arthur and his knights lie asleep, waiting the inevitable day when England's dire need shall bring them again to life, to strike a blow for the land they loved. And along that noble line of wall which spanned England from sea to sea, might they not perchance foregather—some dark and stormy night, when snow drives down before a north-east wind—with the dim forms of armoured men, wraiths of the Roman legions, patrolling once more the line that they died to defend?

Dicky of Kingswood was making for home one day in early spring. He was outside the radius of his usual field of operations, far to the east of Kingswood and Staward, plodding along with the westering sun in his eyes, and thinking ruefully that he had come a long way for nothing. Sometimes it is convenient for gentlemen of Dicky's habits to visit foreign parts, or parts, at least, where their appearance may not attract undue notice—for such as he are often of modest and retiring disposition. On this occasion he had so far done no business of profit, and Dicky was depressed. He would fain turn a more or less honest penny ere he reached home, if it might but be done quietly.

Late in the day came his chance. Grazing in a neighbouring lush pasture were two fine fat bullocks. Dicky paused to look, and the more he looked, the more he admired; the more he admired, the more he coveted. They were magnificent beasts, seldom had he seen finer; nothing could better suit his purpose. Such beasts would fetch a high price anywhere—they must  be his. So, with what patience he could command, till darkness should come to his aid, Dicky discreetly retired to a neighbouring copse, where, himself unseen, he might feast his eyes on the fat cattle, and at the same time make sure that if they did happen to be removed from that particular pasture, at least he would not be ignorant of their whereabouts. But the bullocks fed on undisturbed. No one came to remove them; only their owner stood regarding them for a while. Darkness fell, and the call of an owl that hooted eerily, or the distant wail of a curlew, alone broke the stillness. Then up came Dicky's best friend, a moon but little past the full. Everything was in his favour, not a hitch of any kind occurred; quietly and without any fuss the great fat beasts began to make their slow way west across the hills for Cumberland.

Morning came, bringing with it a great hue and cry on that farm bereft of its fat cattle, and things might chance to have fared ill with Dicky had he not adroitly contrived to lay a false trail, that headed the furious owner in hasty pursuit north, towards Tweed and Scotland. Meanwhile, in due time—not for worlds would Dicky have overdriven them—the bullocks and their driver found themselves in Cumberland, near by Lanercost. There, as they picked their leisurely way along, they encountered an old farmer riding a bay mare, the like of which for quality Dicky had never seen. His mouth watered.

"Where be'st gangin' wi' the nowt?" asked the farmer.

"Oh, to Carlisle," said Dicky.

"Wad ye sell?"

"Oh aye!" answered Dicky. "For a price. But the beasts are good."

"Yes, they were good," admitted the farmer. And Dicky must come in, and have a drink, and they'd talk about the oxen. So in they went to the farmer's house, and long they talked, and the more they talked the more the farmer wanted those bullocks; but the more he wanted them the more he tried to beat Dicky down. But Dicky was in no haste to sell; he could do better at Carlisle, said he; and the upshot, of course, was that he got the price he asked. And then said Dicky, when the money was paid, and they had had another drink or two, and a mighty supper:

"That was a bonnie mare ye were riding."

"Aye," said the farmer. "An' she's as good as she's bonnie. There's no her like in a' Cumberland."

"Wad ye sell?"

"Sell!" cried the farmer. "No for the value o' the hale countryside. Her like canna be found. Sell! Never i' this world."

"Well, well," said Dicky, "I canna blame ye. She's a graund mare. But they're kittle times, thir; I wad keep her close, or it micht happen your stable micht be empty some morning."

"Stable!" roared the fanner boisterously. "Hey! man, ah pit her in no stable. She sleeps wi' me, man, in my ain room. Ah'm a bachelor, ah am, an' there's non' to interfere wi' me, and ivvery nicht she's tied to my ain bed-post. Man, it's music to my ear to hear her champin' her corn a' the nicht. Na, na! Ah trust her in no stable; an' ah'd like to see the thief could steal her awa' oot o' my room withoot wakenin' me."

"Well, maybe ye're right," said Dicky. "But mind, there's some cunnin' anes aboot. Ye'll hae a good lock on your door, nae doot?"

"Aye, I have  a good lock, as ye shall see," cried the farmer, caution swamped in brandy and good fellowship. "What think ye o' that for a lock?"

"Uhm—m!" murmured Dicky reflectively, carefully scrutinising lock and key—and he was not unskilled in locks. "Aye, a good lock; a very good lock. Yes, yes! Just what you want; the very thing. They'll no pick that."

"No! They'll never pick that. Ho! Ho!" laughed the complacent farmer.

Then Dicky said he "maun be steppin'. It was gettin' late." And so, after one more drink, and another "to the King, God bless him," and yet one more to "themselves," and a fourth, just to see that the others went the right way and behaved themselves, the two parted, the best and dearest of friends.

It might have been the outcome of a good conscience, or perhaps it was the soothing thought that he had made a good bargain, and had got those bullocks at a figure lower than he had been prepared to pay; or, possibly, it may only have been the outcome of that extra last glass or two that he had had with Dicky. But whatever it was, the fact remained that the farmer's slumbers that night were very profound, his snoring heavier than common. Towards morning, but whilst yet the night was dark, dreaming that he and the mare were swimming a deep and icy river, he woke with a start. Everything was strangely still; even the mare made no sound. And—surely it must be freezing! He was chilled to the bone. And then, on a brain where yet sang the fumes of brandy, it dawned that he had absolutely no covering on him. Sleepily he felt with his hands this way and that, up and down. To no purpose. His blankets must certainly have fallen on the floor, but try as he might, no hand could he lay on them. Slipping out of bed to grope for flint and steel wherewith to strike a light, with soul-rending shock he ran his forehead full butt against the open door of his room.

"De'il tak' it! What's this?" he bellowed. It was inconceivable that he had forgotten to close and lock that door before getting into bed, however much brandy he might have drunk overnight. What was the meaning of it? At last a light, got from the smouldering kitchen fire, revealed the hideous truth—his room was empty, the cherished mare gone! The door (as he had found to his cost) stood wide open; along the floor were carefully spread his blankets, and over them no doubt the mare had been led out without making noise sufficient to awaken even a light sleeper, let alone one whose potations had been deep as the farmer's.

Lights now flashed and twinkled from room to room, from house to stable and byre, and back again, as the frenzied, cursing farmer and his servants tumbled over each other in their haste to find the lost animal. It is even said that one servant lass, in her ardour of search, was found looking under the bed in an upstairs room—scarcely a likely grazing ground for any four-footed animal (unless perhaps it might be a night-mare). But whether she expected to find there the lost quadruped, or the man guilty of its abduction, tradition says not. At any rate, all that any of the searchers found—and that not till broad daylight—was the print of the good mare's hoofs in some soft ground over which she had been ridden fast. And no one had heard even so much as the smallest sound.

The day was yet young, and the breeze played gratefully cool on Dicky's brow, as, fearless of pursuit, he rode contentedly along towards home a few hours later. Skirting by Naworth, thence up by Tindale Tarn and down the burn to South Tyne, he had now come to the Fells a little to the south and east of Haltwhistle. To him came a man on foot; and, said he:

"Have ye seen onny stray cattle i' your travels? I've lost a yoke o' fat bullocks."

"What micht they be like?" asked Dicky innocently; for he had no difficulty in recognising the farmer from whom he had stolen the beasts, though the latter, having never set eyes on Dicky, had no idea of whom he was talking to.

"Oh," said the man, "they were fine, muckle, fat beasts, red, baith o' them, ane wi' a bally face, an' the tither wi' its near horn sair turned in." And some other notable peculiarities the farmer mentioned, such as might strike a man skilled in cattle.

"We-el," answered Dicky thoughtfully, "now that ye mention it, I believe I did see sic a pair, or twa very like them, no later agone than yesterday afternoon. If I'm no mista'en, they're rinnin' on Maister ——'s farm, no far frae Lanercost."

"Man, ah'm that obleeged to ye. But ah'm that deid tired wi' walkin', seekin' them, ah canna gang that far," said the farmer. "That's a gey guid mare ye're ridin'. Ye wadna be for sellin' her, likely?"

"Oh aye, I'll sell. But she's a braw mare; there's no her like i' the countryside, or in a' Northumberland. I'll be wantin' a braw price." Dicky was always ready for a deal, and in this instance of course it suited him very well to get rid of his steed.

So, after some chaffering, Dicky was promised his "braw price," and he accompanied the farmer home to get the money. A long way it was. The farmer perforce walked, but Dicky, with native caution, rode, for, said he, in excuse to his companion:

"I'm loth to part wi' my good auld mare, for I've never owned her like. Sae I'll jist tak' a last bit journey on her."

In due course Dicky got his money, and food and drink, as much as he could swallow, into the bargain. Then the farmer rode away for Lanercost; and Dicky, of course, remembered that he had business in a different part of the country.

Sure enough, when the farmer reached Lanercost there were his bullocks contentedly grazing in a field, while contemplatively gazing at them stood an elderly man, with damaged face.

Up rode the farmer on the mare.

"Here!" shouted he angrily, "what the de'il are ye doin' wi' my bullocks?"

"Wh-a-at?" bellowed the other with equal fury. "Your  bullocks! And be d——d to ye! If it comes to that, what the de'il are ye  doin' ridin' my mare? I'll hae the law o' ye for stealin' her, ye scoondrel! Come doon  oot o' my saiddle afore ah pu' ye doon." And the two elderly men, each red in the face as a "bubbly jock," both spluttering and almost speechless with rage, glared at each other, murder in their eyes.

Then came question and answer, and mutual explanation, and gradually the comic side of the affair struck them; each saw how the other had been done, and they burst into roar after roar of such laughter as left them weak and helpless. They had been properly fooled. But the fat bullocks were recovered, and the well-loved mare, even if the money paid for each was gone. And after all, he laughs best who laughs last. But they saw no more of Dicky of Kingswood.