Witch Wood, by John Buchan

Chapter 14

The Counterblast

He dreamed that night that he was being spied upon, and next day — with no more meetings with Katrine before him to fire his fancy — his cold reason justified the fear. The conviction was presently confirmed by a discovery of Isobel’s. Mark Kerr’s cast clothes had been hidden at first in the gloom of the rafters in David’s camceiled bedroom, but the coming of Leslie’s troops compelled her to change this place of disposal to the stable, where, in the space between the wall and the thatch, she bestowed them, wrapped stoutly in sacking. She kept an eye on the bundle, and one morning it had disappeared. More, it had clearly been stolen and hurriedly opened, for the sacking and a tarry rope which bound it were found among the nettles beyond the kirkyard wall. Compromising goods indeed to come forth of a minister’s house!

That same day Isobel returned from a visit to her cousin with a queer tale.

“Something’s gotten out, sir. The wives in the kirkton are clatterin’ like daws. ‘What’s this they tell me, gossip,’ says one, ‘about Babylonish garments found in the manse?’ ‘Faith, I kenna,’ says I. ‘They’re nane o’ my findin’, but wi’ roarin’ sodgers quartered in ilka chamber ye’ll no surprise me if some unco gear were left behind.’ ‘But it’s nae honest gear o’ Davie Leslie’s lads,’ she says, ‘but the laced coats and plumit hats o’ the malignants. And there’s a report that ithers hae sleepit in the manse this past se’nnight than our ain Covenant sodgers.’ ‘Wha tell’t ye that, my wumman,’ I says, ‘was a black leear, and a thief forbye. I’d like brawly to ken wha has been snowkin’ round our doors and carryin’ awa’ leein’ tales and maybe some o’ our plenishin’. Tell me the names, and, man or wumman, I’ll hae my fingers at their lugs.’ It was Jean of the Chasehope-fit that spoke to me, and she got mair frae me than she expeckit. There wasna ane o’ her auld misdaein’s I didna fling in her teeth.”

The name of the woman disquieted David, and he asked what she had answered.

“Her! She took my flytin’ wi’ downcast een, and that angered me sae that I had muckle ado to keep my hands frae her face. Syne she says, quietlike, ‘Ye needna get in a steer, Isobel Veitch. If Mr. Sempill’s an honest man, he’ll get his chance to redd up the “fama”.’ “Fama”, says she, whatever yon may mean — there’s a reek o’ Chasehope about the word. And she went on wi’ her saft een and her mim mou’. —‘There’s waur nor that, Isobel wumman,’ she says. ‘Our minister, that’s sae fierce against warlocks, has been walkin’ a queer gait. There’s them that hae seen him in the Wud, and wha do you think he met wi’ there? It’s no a name that I daur speak, but folk hae brunt for less than sic a randyvoo.’ Ye may fancy, sir, what a stound I got, but I just spoke the kimmer civil, and speired for mair. She wasna laith to tell. ‘There’s them,’ says she, ‘that saw the green gown o’ the Queen of Elfhame, and the mune shinin’ through her hair, and saw her gie a kiss to the minister.’ Ye never kissed the leddy, sir?”

“God forbid,” cried David, startled as if at an impiety.

“I thocht ye werena just as far forrit as that. . . . Weel, that’s the tale they’ve gotten, and may it stick in their thrapples! I’m no feared for their blethers about fairies, but we’ll need some stench lees to get the sodger’s claes blawn over. I wish I kenned wha was the thief. I’ll threip that they were left by Leslie’s folk and that ye kenned nocht about them.”

“Por me,” said David, “I shall tell the plain truth, save in the mentioning of names. I command you, Isobel, to do likewise. The man is by now out of danger, and a falsehood, which may be pardoned if it is to save another, is black sin if used by a coward to save himself.”

Isobel looked at him uneasily. “There will be an awfu’ speak in the parish, sir. Bethink ye, is it wise to gie sic a handle to them that wad bring ye doun? . . . But I see your mind is made up, and nae words o’ mine will turn ye. We maun hope that the question will never be speired, and I daur ony man or wumman in the place to get sae far wi’ ME as the speirin’.”

During David’s absence in Edinburgh Mr. Fordyce, by the command of the Presbytery, had preached in the afternoon in the Woodilee kirk — to but scanty audiences, for the news of Montrose’s advance had inclined the people to keep inside their doors. On the first Sabbath after his return, when there were still troops in the place, the pulpit had been occupied by one of Leslie’s chaplains, a stalwart member of the Church militant, who hailed from the Mearns, and whose speech was consequently understood with difficulty in the Border parish. But on the next, when Mark Kerr had gone from his refuge in the Wood, David changed his mind, and himself filled the pulpit. At the news a great congregation assembled, for in that joyous day of delivery it was believed that the sins of the parish would be left on one side, and that the service, as in the other kirks in the land, would be one of thanksgiving and exultation. To the surprise of most of his hearers — and to the satisfaction of the suspicious — there was no word of the recent crowning mercies, save a perfunctory mention in the opening prayer.

David, as befitted one who had just buried his father, discoursed on death. He was in a mood which puzzled himself, for gentleness seemed to have come upon him and driven out his jealous wrath. He had seen the righteous die, the man who had begot him, the last near kin he possessed, and memories of childhood and something of the wistfulness of the child had flooded in on his soul. He had seen, too, the downfall of human pride, the descent of greatness to dust, and yet in that dust a more compelling greatness. Above all, his love for Katrine had mellowed and lit the world for him; it had revealed depths of joy and beauty which he had never known, but the beauty and joy were solemn things, and of a terrible fragility. He felt anew the dependence of all things upon God, and the need of walking humbly in His sight. So he preached not like an Old Testament prophet, confident in his cause and eager to gather the spoil, but as one who saw from a high mountain the littleness of life against the vast background of eternity. He spoke of the futility of mortal hopes, the fallibility of man, the certainty of death. In a passion of tenderness he pled for charity and holiness as the only candles to light the short dark day of life — candles which, lit by a heavenly hand, would some day wax into the bright everlasting day of the New Jerusalem.

There were those among his hearers who were moved by his words, but to most they were meaningless, and to many they were an offence. Peter Pennecuik was darkly critical. “The man is unsound as a peat,” he declared. “Whaur’s the iron o’ doctrine and the fire o’ judgment in sic a bairnly screed? There’s an ill sough there, sirs — he’s ower fond o’ warks and the rags o’ our ain righteousness. Worthy Mr. Proudfoot will be garrin’ the stour fly the day denouncin’ the Laodiceans that wad be lukewarm in cuttin’ off the horns o’ the wicked. Is there ony such godly zeal in our man? Whaur’s the denunciation o’ the sins o’ Montrose and his covenant~breakers? It seems that he’s mair convinced o’ his ain sins.”

“He has maybe cause,” Chasehope observed dryly.

It had been David’s intention to visit the manse of Kirk Aller and obtain the answer of the Presbytery’s moderator to the charges he had formulated. This was a duty which could not be shirked, since he had put his hand to it, but at the moment the fire of battle had died in him, and he had no zest in the task. He found himself longing to take Isobel’s view and believe that his senses had played him false, that the events of the Beltane and Lammas nights were no more than illusions. So he had delayed journeying to Kirk Aller, hoping that his mood would change, and that that which was now a cold duty would revive as a burning mission. . . . Suddenly a post brought him a summons from Mr. Muirhead to wait upon him without delay.

He rode down the riverside in a day of October glooms and shadows. Sometimes a wall of haze would drop from the hills so that the water ran wan as in the ballads, and the withering fern and blanching heath had the tints of December. Then a light wind would furl the shrouded sky into fantastic towers and battlements, through long corridors of which the blue heavens would shine like April at an infinite distance, and the bald mountain-tops, lit by sun-gleams, would be revealed. When he rode over the crook-backed bridge of Aller, past the burgh gallows, he saw that the doomster had been busy at his work. Three ragged scarecrows hung in chains, the flesh already gone from their limbs, and a covey of obscene birds rose at his approach. Stragglers of Montrose, he guessed, and he wondered how many gallows-hills in Scotland showed the same grim harvest. The thought, and the fantastic October weather, deepened the gloom which all morning had been growing on him.

He found a new man in the minister’s chair. The victory of his cause seemed to have expanded Mr. Muirhead’s person, so that he loomed across the oaken table like a judge in his robes. Pride pursed his lips, and authority sat on his forehead. Gone were the airs of tolerant good-humour, the assumption of meekness, the homeliness which had a greeting and a joke for all. This man sat in the seats of the mighty and shared in the burden of government, and his brow was heavy with the weight of it. He met David with a cold, inquisitorial eye, and greeted him with a formal civility.

“I sent for you, Mr. Sempill,” he said, “anent the charge which you have set out in these papers, and on which you have already conferred with me. There has been no meeting of Presbytery, owing to the disturbances in public affairs, but I have shown the papers to certain of my brethren and obtained their mind on them. I have likewise had the privilege of the counsel of the godly laird of Wariston, who, as you no doubt ken, is learned alike in the law of God and the law of man. I have therefore taken it upon myself to convey to you our decision, whilk you may take to be the decision of the courts of the Kirk, and that decision is that there is no substance in your case. You are upset on the relevancy, sir. There is nothing here,” and he tapped the papers, “which would warrant me in occupying the time of folk who have many greater matters in hand.”

“I did not ask for a judgment, but for an inquiry, and that I must continue to demand.”

“Ay, but you must first show a prima facie case, and that you have failed to do. You have brought grievous charges against one noted servant of God, and sundry women, of whom it can at least be said that they bear a good repute. Your evidence — well, what is your evidence? You say that you yourself have seen this and heard that, but you are a tainted witness — a matter to which I shall presently revert. . . . You have the man Andrew Shillinglaw in Reiverslaw, who, in the bit of precognition with which you have furnished me, tells a daft tale of dressing himself up like a mountebank, visiting the wood of Melanudrigill, and sharing in certain unlawful doings. I ask you, sir, what credence can be given to such evidence? Imprimis, he was himself engaged in wrongdoing, and so is justly suspect. Item, he is a notorious wine-bibber, and when the maut is in, the wits are out. Whatna condition was he in to observe justly in the mirk of the night in the Black Wood, where by his own account he was capering like a puddock and was all the time in a grue of terror? He claims on that occasion to have laid a trap for the accused and to have informed two men of undoubted Christian conversation of his purpose, and he claims that on the next day the same witnesses at the toun of Chasehope were cognizant of the success of his trap. As I live by bread and by the hope of salvation, this is the daftest tale that ever came to my ears. A smell of burning duds, and a missing hen! The veriest cateran that ever reived in the Hielands would be assoilzied on such a plea. There is not evidence here to hang a messan dog. Away with you, man, and let’s hear no more of what I can only judge to have been a drunken cantrip.”

“I demand that Ephraim Caird be interrogated by the Presbytery and confronted with me and my witnesses.”

“You must first prove a prima facie case, as I say, for otherwise honest men might lose time and siller in being set to answer malicious libels. That is the law of Scotland, sir, and it is the law of every Christian land, and you have lamentably failed in that prior duty.”

“There is my own evidence — the evidence of an eyewitness. You may account for Reiverslaw, but you have still to account for me.”

“Just so.” A grim humour seemed to lurk at the corner of Mr. Muirhead’s mouth. “We have to account for you, Mr. Sempill, and it seems that it will be a sore business. For I have here”— he tapped a paper —“another dittay in which you yourself are named. It is painful for me even to give ear to accusations against a brother on whose head my own hands have been laid in holy ordination. But I have my solemn duty to perform, and must consider the complaints of a kirk session against a minister as carefully and prayerfully as those of a minister against a kirk session.”

The effect on David was of a sudden clearing of the air and a bracing of nerve. This was, then, to be no one-sided war, for his enemies had declared themselves, and met attack by counter-attack. He smiled at the portentous solemnity of Mr. Muirhead’s face.

“I can guess one of the names appended to the charge,” he said. “It is that of Chasehope.”

Mr. Muirhead turned over the paper. “Ephraim Caird is there, and others no less weighty. There is Peter Pennecuik . . . and Alexander Sprot in Mirehope . . . and Thomas Spotswood in the mill of Woodilee. If godly elders are constrained to delate him who has been set over them in spiritual affairs, it’s scarcely a thing to be met with a smirk and a grin.”

“I am waiting to hear the charge.”

“It is twofold. The complainants allege that you have had trokings with the Wood and the evil of the Wood — and indeed on your own confession we know that you have frequented it when decent folk were in their beds. There are witnesses to depone to following you to the edge of the thing, as you made your way stealthily at dead of night. On what errand, Mr. Sempill? And in what company?”

“That is what I would like fine to know,” said David.

“You were seen to meet a woman. They were simple folk who saw you and not free from superstition, so they jumped to the conclusion that the woman was no mortal, but the Queen of the Fairies. That’s as it may be. You and me are not bairns to believe in fays and bogles. But the fact that emerges is that you were in the Wood at night, not once but many times, and that you were seen in a woman’s company. That is a fine report on a minister of God, and it will want some redding up, Mr. Sempill.”

“My movements were wholly innocent, and can be simply explained,” said David. But the charge maddened him, he blushed deep, and he had much ado to keep his tongue from stammering. He wrestled with a pagan desire to buffet Mr. Muirhead violently on his large authoritative face.

“But can you explain THIS?” the latter cried, for he was not unconscious of David’s confusion. “There is a second charge, and its gravamen is the heavier, seeing that it alleges an offence both against the will of God and the governance of this land. On the 26th day of the month of September in this year of grace there was found in the appurtenances of the manse of Woodilee — to wit, in the baulks of the stable atween the thatch and the wall — a bundle of garments, including a laced coat such as is worn by malignants, and sundry other habiliments strange to the countryside, but well kenned in the array of caterans whereof Montrose was the late leader. It is argued, therefore, that shelter was given in the manse to a fugitive, and that a minister of the Kirk connived at the escape from justice of one of the Kirk’s oppressors. What say you to that, sir?”

“I say that it is true.”

David was not prepared for the consternation in the other’s face. Mr. Muirhead sat erect in his chair, his head was poked forward from between his shoulders like that of a tortoise from its shell, colour surged over cheeks and forehead and his bald crown, and his voice, when he found utterance, was of an unnatural smallness. His careful speech broke down into country dialect.

“Ye admit it! God peety you, ye do not blench to admit this awful sin! Have ye no shame, man, that ye sit there snug and canty and confess to a treason against Christ and His Kirk?”

There was more in the man’s face than anger and incredulous horror; there was pity, regret, a sense of an unspeakable sacrilege done to all that he held most dear. David saw that the minister of Kirk Aller, though he might have little love for himself, would have given much had this confession been unsaid — that he felt that shame had been cast upon his calling and even upon his own self-respect. So he answered gently:

“A wounded man came to my door. I fed him and nursed him, and he is now, I trust, in health and safety. I would do the same thing again for any distressed mortal.”

Mr. Muirhead’s eyes goggled.

“Have you no notion — have you no glimmering of what you have done? I speak patiently, for I’m driven to think you’re not right in the mind. You have loosed on the world a malefactor, a slayer and despoiler of God’s people.”

“I have his word that he will not again take up arms in Scotland. He was a soldier of the great Gustavus.”

“What’s the word of a malignant to lippen to? Man, you’re easy begowked. When the Lord’s command anent our enemy is Smite and spare not, you, an ordained minister, connive at his escape. . . . Ay, and there’s more to it. I have news that you molested Leslie’s troops in their pursuit of a light woman that followed Montrose’s camp, and that you took the name of the Lord in vain in interdicting them from their manifest duty. Have you not heard that at the brig of Linlithgow the wantons were drowned in scores by the command of the worthy General, whilk was a notable warning to sinners and an encouragement to God’s people? Are there not Commissions of the Estates and of the Kirk appointed to judge the captured malefactors in Edinburgh and St. Andrews, and gallows set on every burgh knowe besouth of Forth? And you dare help to cheat the wuddy of one who was no doubt the blackest of them? There’s no a presbytery in the land but has sent in a memorial to encourage those in authority in their righteous work. For shame, man! Even in your own parish you have Chasehope lending a hand and riding the hills like a moss~trooper — the very man you would delate for sin.”

“I obey God’s word and my own conscience. I can imagine no blacker sin than cruelty to the defenceless.”

“God’s word!” cried Mr. Muirhead. “You’ve been lamentably ill~instructed. What did Joshua to the people of Jericho, but utterly destroy them, both man and woman, young and old? What did Gideon to the kings Zeba and Zalmunna? What was the command of the Lord to Saul when he went out against Agag king of the Amalekites but to slay both man and woman, infant and suckling, and when Saul would have saved Agag, what said Samuel to him? —‘Rebellion is as the sin of witchcraft and stubbornness is as iniquity and idolatry.’ Your eyes are full of fatness if you canna see the Lord’s will. And your conscience! You would set up your own fallible judgment against God’s plain command and the resolved opinion of the haill Kirk.”

“I am a minister of Christ first and of the Kirk second. If the Kirk forgets its Master’s teaching, we part company.”

“And what’s that teaching, prithee?”

“To have mercy and not sacrifice.”

The minister of Kirk Aller closed his eyes as if in pain.

“You’re deep deep in the mire of your carnal conceits,” he said. “I thought you were only wayward and mistaken, but I see you’re firm on the rock of your impenitence. Troth, Mr. Ebenezer of Bold was in the right — you’ve heresy in you as well as recalcitrance. This is Presbytery business, sir — ay, and maybe matter for the General Assembly. I would be a faithless guardian of the sheepfold if I didna probe it to its bottom. This complaint must go forward. — Meantime, till the Presbytery has adjudged it, I forbid you to conduct the ordinances in the kirk of Woodilee. I will appoint some worthier person, lest the pure gospel milk on your lips be turned to poison.”

“I refuse to obey you,” said David, “for you have no power to command. I stand on my rights to continue my ministrations till such time as the lawful authority sets me aside. Meantime I require that my charge against Chasehope go to the Presbytery equally with his charge against me.”

Mr. Muirhead was on his feet, with the famous glower on his face which had aforetime awed timid brethren. It did not awe David, who gave him back stare for stare with a resolution to which he was little accustomed. Indeed the vigorous youth of his antagonist and something in the set jaw made the elder man pause. He shuffled off as if to end the interview, and David strode from the house with unseeing eyes and a burning heart.

All the way home his head was filled with a confusion of angry thoughts. He saw himself caught in toils at once absurd and perilous. He could imagine the prejudice which his sheltering of the fugitive would raise against him; he saw his indictment of Chasehope nullified by this legend of his own visits to the Wood; above all, the bringing in of Katrine made him clench his hands with a sense of furious sacrilege. In that moment he seemed to himself like a child without friends battering at a wall as broad as the earth and as high as the heavens. . . . But the consequent feeling was not of hopelessness but of a tight-lipped rage. He longed to be in a world where blows could be struck swift and clean, and where hazards were tangible things like steel and powder. Not for the first time in his life he wished that he had been a soldier. He was striving against folly and ignorance, blind prejudice, false conventions, narrow covenants. How much better to be fighting with armed men!

Isobel met him at the manse door with a portentous face.

“There’s a new man come to Crossbasket,” she announced. “His plenishin’ cam’ up the water this mornin’— four horse-loads — and the drovers are bringin’ his sheep and kye. I saw the body himsel’ in the kirkton an hour syne. He’s the rale down-the-water fairmer breed, verra weel set up and no that auld, and he wears a maud like a herd. But Mr. David, sir”— she lowered her voice —“guess ye wha he is? I couldna be mistook, and when he cried me guid day I saw brawly that he kenned me and kenned that I kenned him. He ca’s himsel’ Mark Riddel, but it’s the glee’d sodger man that lay in our best bed.”

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