No-Man’s-Land, by John Buchan

II. Tells of an Evening’s Talk

The shepherd was a masterful man; tall, save for the stoop which belongs to all moorland folk, and active as a wild goat. He was not a new importation, nor did he belong to the place; for his people had lived in the remote Borders, and he had come as a boy to this shieling of Farawa. He was unmarried, but an elderly sister lived with him and cooked his meals. He was reputed to be extraordinarily skilful in his trade; I know for a fact that he was in his way a keen sportsman; and his few neighbours gave him credit for a sincere piety. Doubtless this last report was due in part to his silence, for after his first greeting he was wont to relapse into a singular taciturnity. As we strode across the heather he gave me a short outline of his year’s lambing. ‘Five pair o’ twins yestreen, twae this morn; that makes thirty-five yowes that hae lambed since the Sabbath. I’ll dae weel if God’s willin’.’ Then, as I looked towards the hill-tops whence the thin mist of morn was trailing, he followed my gaze. ‘See,’ he said with uplifted crook —‘see that sicht. Is that no what is written of in the Bible when it says, “The mountains do smoke”.’ And with this piece of apologeties he finished his talk, and in a little we were at the cottage.

It was a small enough dwelling in truth, and yet large for a moorland house, for it had a garret below the thatch, which was given up to my sole enjoyment. Below was the wide kitchen with box-beds, and next to it the inevitable second room, also with its cupboard sleeping-places. The interior was very clean, and yet I remember to have been struck with the faint musty smell which is inseparable from moorland dwellings. The kitchen pleased me best, for there the great rafters were black with peat-reek, and the uncovered stone floor, on which the fire gleamed dully, gave an air of primeval simplicity. But the walls spoiled all, for tawdry things of to-day had penetrated even there. Some grocers’ almanacs — years old — hung in places of honour, and an extraordinary lithograph of the Royal Family in its youth. And this, mind you, between crooks and fishing-rods and old guns, and horns of sheep and deer.

The life for the first day or two was regular and placid. I was up early, breakfasted on porridge (a dish which I detest), and then off to the lochs and streams. At first my sport prospered mightily. With a drake-wing I killed a salmon of seventeen pounds, and the next day had a fine basket of trout from a hill-burn. Then for no earthly reason the weather changed. A bitter wind came out of the north-east, bringing showers of snow and stinging hail, and lashing the waters into storm. It was now farewell to fly-fishing. For a day or two I tried trolling with the minnow on the lochs, but it was poor sport, for I had no boat, and the edges were soft and mossy. Then in disgust I gave up the attempt, went back to the cottage, lit my biggest pipe, and sat down with a book to await the turn of the weather.

The shepherd was out from morning till night at his work, and when he came in at last, dog-tired, his face would be set and hard, and his eyes heavy with sleep. The strangeness of the man grew upon me. He had a shrewd brain beneath his thatch of hair, for I had tried him once or twice, and found him abundantly intelligent. He had some smattering of an education, like all Scottish peasants, and, as I have said, he was deeply religious. I set him down as a fine type of his class, sober, serious, keenly critical, free from the bondage of superstition. But I rarely saw him, and our talk was chiefly in monosyllables — short interjected accounts of the number of lambs dead or alive on the hill. Then he would produce a pencil and notebook, and be immersed in some calculation; and finally he would be revealed sleeping heavily in his chair, till his sister wakened him, and he stumbled off to bed.

So much for the ordinary course of life; but one day — the second I think of the bad weather — the extraordinary happened. The storm had passed in the afternoon into a resolute and blinding snow, and the shepherd, finding it hopeless on the hill, came home about three o’clock. I could make out from his way of entering that he was in a great temper. He kicked his feet savagely against the door-post. Then he swore at his dogs, a thing I had never heard him do before. ‘Hell!’ he cried, ‘can ye no keep out o’ my road, ye britts?’ Then he came sullenly into the kitchen, thawed his numbed hands at the fire, and sat down to his meal.

I made some aimless remark about the weather.

‘Death to man and beast,’ he grunted. ‘I hae got the sheep doun frae the hill, but the lambs will never thole this. We maun pray that it will no last.’

His sister came in with some dish. ‘Margit,’ he cried, ‘three lambs away this morning, and three deid wi’ the hole in the throat.’

The woman’s face visibly paled. ‘Guid help us, Adam; that hasna happened this three year.’

‘It has happened noo,’ he said, surlily. ‘But, by God! if it happens again I’ll gang mysel’ to the Scarts o’ the Muneraw.’

‘O Adam!’ the woman cried shrilly, ‘haud your tongue. Ye kenna wha hears ye.’ And with a frightened glance at me she left the room.

I asked no questions, but waited till the shepherd’s anger should cool. But the cloud did not pass so lightly. When he had finished his dinner he pulled his chair to the fire and sat staring moodily. He made some sort of apology to me for his conduct. ‘I’m sore troubled, sir; but I’m vexed ye should see me like this. Maybe things will be better the morn.’ And then, lighting his short black pipe, he resigned himself to his meditations.

But he could not keep quiet. Some nervous unrest seemed to have possessed the man. He got up with a start and went to the window, where the snow was drifting, unsteadily past. As he stared out into the storm I heard him mutter to himself, ‘Three away, God help me, and three wi’ the hole in the throat.’

Then he turned round to me abruptly. I was jotting down notes for an article I contemplated in the ‘Revue Celtique,’ so my thoughts were far away from the present. The man recalled me by demanding fiercely. ‘Do ye believe in God?’

I gave him some sort of answer in the affirmative.

‘Then do ye believe in the Devil?’ he asked.

The reply must have been less satisfactory, for he came forward, and flung himself violently into the chair before me.

‘What do ye ken about it?’ he cried. ‘You that bides in a southern toun, what can ye ken o’ the God that works in thae hills and the Devil — ay, the manifold devils — that He suffers to bide here? I tell ye, man, that if ye had seen what I have seen ye wad be on your knees at this moment praying to God to pardon your unbelief. There are devils at the back o’ every stane and hidin’ in every cleuch, and it’s by the grace o’ God alone that a man is alive upon the earth.’ His voice had risen high and shrill, and then suddenly he cast a frightened glance towards the window and was silent.

I began to think that the man’s wits were unhinged, and the thought did not give me satisfaction. I had no relish for the prospect of being left alone in this moorland dwelling with the cheerful company of a maniac. But his next movements reassured me. He was clearly only dead-tired, for he fell sound asleep in his chair, and by the time his sister brought tea and wakened him, he seemed to have got the better of his excitement.

When the window was shuttered and the lamp lit, I set myself again to the completion of my notes. The shepherd had got out his Bible, and was solemnly reading with one great finger travelling down the lines. He was smoking, and whenever some text came home to him with power he would make pretence to underline it with the end of the stem. Soon I had finished the work I desired, and, my mind being full of my pet hobby, I fell into an inquisitive frame of mind, and began to question the solemn man opposite on the antiquities of the place.

He stared stupidly at me when I asked him concerning monuments or ancient weapons.

‘I kenna,’ said he. ‘There’s a heap o’ queer things in the hills.’

‘This place should be a centre for such relics. You know that the name of the hill behind the house, as far as I can make it out, means the “Place of the Little Men.” It is a good Gaelic word, though there is some doubt about its exact interpretation. But clearly the Gaelic peoples did not speak of themselves when they gave the name; they must have referred to some older and stranger population.’

The shepherd looked at me dully, as not understanding.

‘It is partly this fact — besides the fishing, of course — which interests me in this countryside,’ said I, gaily.

Again he cast the same queer frightened glance towards the window. ‘If tak the advice of an aulder man,’ he said, slowly, ‘yell let well alane and no meddle wi’ uncanny things.’

I laughed pleasantly, for at last I had found out my hard-headed host in a piece of childishness. ‘Why, I thought that you of all men would be free from superstition.’

‘What do ye call supersteetion?’ he asked.

‘A belief in old wives’ tales,’ said I, ‘a trust in the crude supernatural and the patently impossible.’

He looked at me beneath his shaggy brows. ‘How do ye ken what is impossible? Mind ye, sir, ye’re no in the toun just now, but in the thick of the wild hills.’

‘But, hang it all, man,’ I cried, ‘you don’t mean to say that you believe in that sort of thing? I am prepared for many things up here, but not for the Brownie, — though, to be sure, if one could meet him in the flesh, it would be rather pleasant than otherwise, for he was a companionable sort of fellow.’

‘When a thing pits the fear o’ death on a man he aye speaks well of it.’

It was true — the Eumenides and the Good Folk over again; and I awoke with interest to the fact that the conversation was getting into strange channels.

The shepherd moved uneasily in his chair. ‘I am a man that fears God, and has nae time for daft stories; but I havena traivelled the hills for twenty years wi’ my een shut. If I say that I could tell ye stories o’ faces seen in the mist, and queer things that have knocked against me in the snaw, wad ye believe me? I wager ye wadna. Ye wad say I had been drunk, and yet I am a God-fearing temperate man.’

He rose and went to a cupboard, unlocked it, and brought out something in his hand, which he held out to me. I took it with some curiosity, and found that it was a flint arrow-head.

Clearly a flint arrow-head, and yet like none that I had ever seen in any collection. For one thing it was larger, and the barb less clumsily thick. More, the chipping was new, or comparatively so; this thing had not stood the wear of fifteen hundred years among the stones of the hillside. Now there are, I regret to say, institutions which manufacture primitive relics; but it is not hard for a practised eye to see the difference. The chipping has either a regularity and a balance which is unknown in the real thing, or the rudeness has been overdone, and the result is an implement incapable of harming a mortal creature. But this was the real thing if it ever existed; and yet — I was prepared to swear on my reputation that it was not half a century old.

‘Where did you get this?’ I asked with some nervousness.

‘I hae a story about that,’ said the shepherd. ‘Outside the door there ye can see a muckle flat stane aside the buchts. One simmer nicht I was sitting there smoking till the dark, and I wager there was naething on the stane then. But that same nicht I awoke wi’ a queer thocht, as if there were folk moving around the hoose — folk that didna mak’ muckle noise. I mind o’ lookin’ out o’ the windy, and I could hae sworn I saw something black movin’ amang the heather and intil the buchts. Now I had maybe threescore o’ lambs there that nicht, for I had to tak’ them many miles off in the early morning. Weel, when I gets up about four o’clock and gangs out, as I am passing the muckle stane I finds this bit errow. “That’s come here in the nicht,” says I, and I wunnered a wee and put it in my pouch. But when I came to my faulds what did I see? Five o’ my best hoggs were away, and three mair were lying deid wi’ a hole in their throat.’

‘Who in the world —?’ I began.

Dinna ask,’ said he. ‘If I aince sterted to speir about thae maitters, I wadna keep my reason.’

‘Then that was what happened on the hill this morning?’

‘Even sae, and it has happened mair than aince sin’ that time. It’s the most uncanny slaughter, for sheep-stealing I can understand, but no this pricking o’ the puir beasts’ wizands. I kenna how they dae’t either, for it’s no wi’ a knife or ony common tool.’

‘Have you never tried to follow the thieves?’

‘Have I no?’ he asked, grimly. ‘Hit had been common sheep-stealers I wad hae had them by the heels, though I had followed them a hundred miles. But this is no common. I’ve tracked them, and it’s ill they are to track; but I never got beyond ae place, and that was the Scarts o’ the Muneraw that ye’ve heard me speak o’.’

‘But who in Heaven’s name are the people? Tinklers or poachers or what?’

‘Ay,’ said he, drily. ‘Even so. Tinklers and poachers whae wark wi’ stane errows and kill sheep by a hole in their throat. Lord, I kenna what they are, unless the Muckle Deil himsel’.’

The conversation had passed beyond my comprehension. In this prosaic hard-headed man I had come on the dead-rock of superstition and blind fear.

‘That is only the story of the Brownie over again, and he is an exploded myth,’ I said, laughing.

‘Are ye the man that exploded it?’ said the shepherd, rudely. ‘I trow no, neither you nor ony ither. My bonny man, if ye lived a twalmonth in thae hills, ye wad sing safter about exploded myths, as ye call them.’

‘I tell you what I would do,’ said I. ‘If I lost sheep as you lose them, I would go up the Scarts of the Muneraw and never rest till I had settled the question once and for all.’ I spoke hotly, for I was vexed by the man’s childish fear.

‘I daresay ye wad,’ he said, slowly. ‘But then I am no you, and maybe I ken mair o’ what is in the Scarts o’ the Muneraw. Maybe I ken that whilk, if ye kenned it, wad send ye back to the South Country wi’ your hert in your mouth. But, as I say, I am no sae brave as you, for I saw something in the first year o’ my herding here which put the terror o’ God on me, and makes me a fearfu’ man to this day. Ye ken the story o’ the gudeman o’ Carrickfey?’

I nodded.

Weel, I was the man that fand him. I had seen the deid afore and I’ve seen them since. But never have I seen aucht like the look in that man’s een. What he saw at his death I may see the morn, so I walk before the Lord in fear.’

Then he rose and stretched himself. ‘It’s bedding-time, for I maun be up at three,’ and with a short good night he left the room.

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Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 13:32