Witch Wood, by John Buchan

Chapter 18

The Plague

In the first week of the New Year the miraculous weather showed no sign of breaking. The sun from rising to setting shone temperately in a clear sky, the nights were little less warm than May, and even the old folk cast the blankets from them and opened the doors of their press-beds; the peat-stacks and the fuel-stacks were scarcely touched, and the fires smouldered only for cooking; the burns were shrunken to summer size, and the spawning fish could not pass the shallows of Rood. But a change had come over the mind of the parish. Men no longer called down blessings on the fine open winter, for such weather seemed in defiance of nature, and an uneasy anticipation of portents weighed on their spirits. The sun did not warm, the unclouded skies did not cheer, the hard roads did not invite to movement. A curious languor fell upon Woodilee.

It seemed as if the same apprehension were felt by the natural world. The cattle and sheep, in spite of the good pasture, grew thinner than in the rigours of winter. The packman’s pony turned away from the rich bite by the roadside. Though the air was cool and tonic, beast and man sweated with the smallest exertion. David, tramping the high moors, found that he was more weary after five miles than after twenty in the summer heats. The deer from Melanudrigill had none of their winter boldness, and indeed all wild animals had become shyer of the presence of man than the oldest inhabitant remembered. But all were aware and restless; there were more worm-casts on the turf than in spring, and migrant birds, which usually tarried long in the sheltered glen, now passed high in air for the south. David saw many a drove as he opened his window in the morning. Even the fieldfares, which Amos Ritchie used to snare in the Mirehope fields, did not come within sight of his bird-lime. . . . A brooding strangeness had come into the air, and apathy silenced the very tykes in the village street. Neighbours rarely gathered at Lucky Weir’s for a mutchkin, though it was thirsty weather; men seemed to be afraid lest what they saw in another’s eye might give substance to their own fears.

Peter Pennecuik, sitting on the stone by the smithy door and mopping a wet forehead, watched Amos drop his tools heavily as he returned from a job at Reiverslaw.

“What mak’ ye o’ the weather?” he asked.

Amos straightened his back.

“I dinna like it. The gillyflowers in my yaird are ettlin’ to bloom. My grannie had a verse o’ auld Thomas the Rhymer — what was it? —

“A Yule wi’out snaws,
A Januar’ wi’ haws,
Bring the deid thraws.”

“There’s a judgment preparin’,” said Peter, “but whatna kind o’ judgment I daurna guess. Certes, it’s no canny.”

“I’ve heard o’ nane ailin’, but there’s seeckness comin’. I can smell it in the air, and the brute beasts can smell it, for they’re sweir to come near Woodilee. There’s no a tod or a maukin on a’ the Hill o’ Deer. D’ye no find a queer savour in the countryside, Peter? There’s wind enough to shake the saughs, but the warld smells like the inside o’ a press-bed when the door’s steekit. Oh for a snell, dirlin’ blast! There’s something rotten and stawsome and unearthly about the blue lift and the saft air. It’s like withered floo’ers on a midden. . . . If there’s nae seeckness yet, there’s seeckness on the road. I maun awa’ in and see to Ailie, for this morn she was complaining o’ a sair heid.”

Two days later the child of a cotter at Mirehope returned from school in the manse kitchen, and to his mother’s amazement beat his head against the door. He fell asleep on the wedder’s skin beside the fire, and when he was wakened for his supper his cheeks were flaming and he seemed to have difficulty with his speech. He was put with the rest into the box which was the children’s bed, and all night filled it with his cries, so that the others sought peace on the floor. In the morning his face and throat were swollen, his eyes were sightless, and he struggled terribly for breath. Before noon he was dead.

In this way came the plague to Woodilee.

Its coming was realized in an instant, for the sinister weather had prepared the people for calamity. Before the dark the rumour of the breaking out of the pest was in the uttermost sheilings. With it went the word that Peter Pennecuik had sickened, and that another child at Mirehope and one of the Chasehope ewe-milkers were down with it. . . . Next day the place was a beleaguered city. Johnnie Dow, the packman, hearing the news at Cauldshaw, diverted his round to Kirk Aller, though thirty pounds Scots were owing to him in Woodilee. The roads were blocked as if Montrose’s kerns commanded them. As it was winter-time there was little work on hand, and even that little was not done. A Sabbath hush fell on the glen, people shut their doors and sat within at their prayers, and that best seeding-ground for plague, a lively terror, was amply prepared.

Peter Pennecuik died in eight hours. There was no heart in the man, and in sickness his command of pious phrases fell away from him, and he passed out of life in a whimpering misery. It was not an edifying death-bed for one who had been a notable professor. But very soon Peter was forgotten — for he was an old man and ripe for his end — as the young and strong were, one by one, struck down. Amos Ritchie’s wife, Ailie, followed — the less to be wondered at, for she had always been frail. But when Jess Morison at Chasehope~foot, dark-browed, high-coloured, and not yet twenty, swooned as she drew water at the well, and died in delirium before evening, fear in the parish became panic. The young herd at Windyways, the trimmest lad in the glen, and the miller’s man, who looked as gnarled as an oak and as strong as a mill-wheel, followed. But the tragedy was the children. Two of them were struck down for each grown-up person, and perished with the speed of plucked flowers. . . . It was another kind of peril from that which old folk remembered in the year ‘10, for no pox attended it nor any of the usual sores. The ordinary first symptom was a blinding headache and a high fever; then came a swelling of the throat and glands and a quick delirium. But in many cases there was no outward swelling; the mischief seemed to descend straightway to the lungs and produce a severe haemorrhage. In such cases there was no final delirium; the patient died with clear mind and little bodily pain in an extreme languor. The first type commonly seized the young and full-bodied; children and old folk followed, as a rule, the second course. But both were fatal: in a week out of fifty-nine smitten, fifty-nine were dead.

There was no doctor to be had in all the countryside. The leech at Kirk Aller, sent for by David, refused to come within a mile of Woodilee, and the old women, the usual medical authorities of the village, had nothing but senseless concoctions and — in secret — more senseless charms. Presently even these were forgotten, and the place lay in a stupor of fear under a visitation from Heaven. Cottages which the pest had entered were, by popular consent, shut to the world, so that they became a hot-bed of infection for the other inmates. A man who had sickness in his dwelling dare not show his face in the street except under cover of night. There was no neighbourly assistance asked or given. The members of a stricken family had to conduct their life in a dreadful isolation, till they too sickened; there were shuttered dwellings where life was slowly blotted out, and the village only learned that the end had come for all by the fact that the chimney ceased to smoke. . . . At first an attempt was made to bury the dead decently, the remaining members of a household undertaking the task, but the spread of the pestilence soon made this impossible. The dead were laid in byre and stable beside the startled beasts, sometimes by the poorer households in the kailyard, and David more than once found a staring, unshrouded corpse in the nettles of the manse loan. There were cottages where all the inmates were dead and unburied, with a lean cat mewing round the barred doors. . . . And all the while the soft blue weather continued, and the wind came balmy from the hills over those silent fields of death.

At first the stupor of Woodilee was shot with an awful apprehension of divine wrath, and the people sought to propitiate their Maker by humbling themselves before Him, and — even the least devout — by constant prayer and the reading of Scripture. But this mood did not long survive. The fury of the blast which smote them drove all religion out of their minds, and left them stark and numb with mortal fear. To begin with, David was welcomed in the house of death, he was summoned in haste, his coming was watched for; even if his ministrations did no good to the unconscious sufferers, they seemed to comfort the others. But presently he found himself an unregarded intruder. Whenever he knew of a case he hastened to it, but the panic-stricken eyes of the living looked at him as blindly as the glazing eyes of the dying. His prayers even to himself seemed idle; at any rate they fell upon dulled ears. What contact could he establish with the sick in the delirium or languor of death, and with those who waited on the same fate with the wild despair of beasts in a trap? What use to point to God when God overshadowed them as a merciless tormentor? And all the while he was in a fever of anxiety. More than one of the dead were among those whom he had remarked in the Wood. Men and women were hastening to judgment with their sins heavy on them — sins unrepented and for ever unrepentable. He, their minister, had to stand feebly by and see souls descending into damnation.

The thought drove him frantic, but it alone gave him power to continue in his fruitless duties, for in this trial he found the flesh very weak. It was not that he feared death, even death by plague, but that a horror of Woodilee had fallen on his spirit. His shrinking from the Wood, his hatred of the sins of the Wood, his quarrel with the Session, the distrust in which he was held by many of his congregation, the episode of the pricker and Bessie Todd’s death — all combined to make the place reek for him of ugliness and decay. The pest seemed merely to add rotting carcasses to rotting souls. . . . Then the pity of it would overcome him, when he thought of children whom he had taught and honest folk who had been kind to him, now cold in death. He was helpless to cure either body or spirit. He had no leechcraft — what would it have availed if he had, for he remembered the Edinburgh doctor by his father’s bed? — and his spiritual ministrations were as idle as wind. . . . Above all, he felt himself a prisoner shut into a noisome cage from which there was no escape. None dare leave or enter Woodilee. One afternoon, in a mood of despair, he climbed the Hill of Deer for a glimpse of the outer world. There lay Calidon on its windy braes, but Calidon was now as distant for him as the moon. There lay the hills in whose spacious wildernesses no pest lurked, for there were no unclean mortals to harbour it, and beyond them was the world where men might live in daylight and honour. As he looked down on Woodilee a haze seemed to lie over it. Was it the effluvia of the plague, a miasma which walled it round more impenetrably than stone walls and iron shutters? . . . He struggled to conquer his shrinking. “Faithless servant,” he told himself, “faithless even over a few things! David Sempill, you rebel against the Lord’s will not because of the sufferings of your poor folk, but because of your own pitiable discomfort. Think shame, man, to be such a whingeing bairn. “For he had realized that the root of his trouble was that he was severed from Katrine.

But that evening Katrine came to him.

While he sat for a little in his study before starting on his melancholy visits, he heard Isobel’s voice below high-pitched in excitement. Then he heard another voice which took him down the stairs three steps at a time. The girl, booted as he had seen her in the mist on the eve of Hallowmass, stood in the light of Isobel’s candle, one gloved hand raised in protest and with an embarrassed smile at her lips and eyes. To David it seemed the first smile that he had seen for an eternity.

“Awa’ hame wi’ ye, my leddy,” Isobel cried. “Ye canna come here, for the pest’s in ilka bite we eat and sowp we drink and breath we draw. Awa’ wi’ ye, an’ keep your mouth tight steekit till ye’re ower the Hill o’ Deer. Oh, haste ye, or ye’ll be smitten like the lave, and ye’re ower young and bonny to dee.”

“Katrine, Katrine,” David exclaimed in agony. “What madness brought you here? Have you not heard that half the parish is sick or dead? There is poison in the very air. Oh, my dear, come not near me. Wrap a fold of your cloak over your mouth and never slacken rein till you are back in Calidon.”

The girl drew off her gloves. Her eyes were on Isobel.

“I am his promised wife,” she said. “Where should I be if not by his side?”

The news left Isobel staring. “His promised wife,” she stammered. “Heard ye ever the like — the manse o’ Woodilee to seek a mistress from Calidon! . . . But the mair reason why ye suld tak’ tent. There’s nae place for a bonny doo like yersel’ in this stricken parish — ye canna help ithers and ye may get your ain death. Awa’ hame, my braw leddy, for the minister has eneuch to trouble him without concern for his joe.”

The girl walked to David’s side and put her hand in his arm.

“You will not forbid me,” she said, and her face was still smiling. “I do not fear the plague, and I do not think it will harm me, for it smites those who live in foul hovels, and I am always about the hills. But I do fear this loneliness. I have not seen you for two weeks, David, and I have been imagining terrible things. I have come to help you, for I have known the pest before — many times in France, and in Oxford too. I know what precautions to take, for I have heard wise men discuss them, but you in Woodilee, from all I hear, are no better than frightened bairns.”

“But your aunt — Mistress Saintserf —”

“Aunt Grizel knows of my coming. She has given me this pomander of spices.” She touched a trinket which hung from her neck by a gold chain.

David struggled to salve his conscience by energy in dissuasion, and though his heart cried for her presence, it was torn, too, by fear for her safety. He commanded, pled, expostulated, but she only turned a smiling face. She sat down before the peat fire and stretched out her feet to the hot ashes.

“You will not drive me away, David,” she said. “Would you forbid me from a work of necessity and mercy — and you a minister?”

In the end he gave up the task, for here was a resolution stiffer than his own, and his strongest arguments faltered when he saw her smile, which was like sunlight in a world of darkness and grim faces. He found himself telling her how the plague had begun, and of the nature of its course — the lack of leeches and medicines, the dearth of helpers, the households perishing silently indoors. She listened calmly, and did not blanch even at the tale of the shuttered cottages and the unburied dead.

“A pretty mess your folk have made of it,” she said. “You have turned Woodilee into a lazar-house, and given the pest a rare breeding-ground. Never mind your spiritual consolations, David. Let the miserable bodies come before the souls. You say you have no leech to cure the sick, and that maybe is as well, for I never yet heard of leech that could master the plague. But if you cannot cure, you may prevent its spread. Our first task is to safeguard those who are not yet smitten. If you shut up a cottage where there is one sick man, you condemn every member to death. That must be stopped without delay — and for God’s sake let us bury the dead — bury or burn.”

“Burn?” he cried out aghast.

“Burn,” she nodded. “Fire is the best purifier.”

“But we shall rouse the place to madness.”

“Better that than death. But we want helpers — bold men who fear neither the pest nor an angry people.”

He shook his head. “There are none such in Woodilee. The bones of all are turned to water.”

“Then we must stiffen them. . . . There is the one whom we now call Mark Riddel. It was he who told me of your trouble, for he was at Calidon yesterday on his way back from Annandale. There is the black-avised man, too, at Reiverslaw. . . . Are there none more?”

The girl’s briskness was rousing David’s mind from its torpor.

“Amos Ritchie, maybe.”

“That gives us three — four with yourself — and four resolved men can do wonders. Others will fall in once the drum is beaten. Rouse yourself, David, and be as eager to save bodies as you ever were to save souls. And do not forget to pray for a change in this lamentable weather. A ringing frost would do more to stay the pest than all the leeches in Scotland . . . .”

She departed as suddenly as she had come. “I dare not come by day,” she told him, “for if Woodilee heard of a stranger its panic would be worse. We have to do with terrified bairns. But I will be here at the same hour to-morrow night, and by that time you must have gathered your helpers.”

David did not return from his visitations till the small hours, but he brought back the first piece of good news. One of the hinds at the Mains, after lying for two days in delirium, was now quit of the fever and in a wholesome sweat — sleeping, too, a natural sleep. It was the first case of a possible recovery, and he was aware how much a single life saved would do to quiet the broken nerves of the parish. Also Katrine’s advent had lifted him out of the slough of despond in which he had been sunk for weeks. She had spurred him to action, and shown him a duty which he had been too blind to see. He fiercely repressed the anxiety with which the mere thought of her presence in that tainted place filled him. He dare not forbid the exercise of courage in another — even in one who was dearer to him than life.

Next morning he went to Reiverslaw, but got no comfort. Andrew Shillinglaw met him out of doors, and made it very clear that he had no desire to come too near him. The conversation was conducted at a distance of a dozen yards.

“Na, na,” he cried. “I’m off this verra day to Moffat, and I’ll no set foot in Woodilee till the pest has gane. Ye ask ower muckle, Mr. Sempill. It’s maybe YOUR duty to gang among them — though ye ken as weel as me that the haill parochine is no worth the life o’ a tinkler’s messan — but it’s no duty o’ Andra Shillinglaw’s. I never could abide the reek o’ the folk, and they have doubtless gotten what they deserved.”

“Ay, I’m feared,” he admitted in answer to David’s appeals. “Ilka body has something that puts the grue on him, and with me it’s aye been the pest. I’ll face steel and pouther, angry men and angry beasts, but I’ll no face what gars a man dee like a ratton in a hole. And what for should I face it for folk that are no a drap bluid’s kin to me?”

The man spoke loudly and violently, as if a little ashamed of himself, and went into the house, where David could hear the bar falling.

From Amos Ritchie he had a different answer. Amos, since his wife’s death, had gone about with bent shoulders and a grey face, and had sat for long hours in his smithy beside a dead fire. There David found him, and propounded his request.

“I’ll do your will, sir,” was the answer. “I’ve sae little left to live for that I’ve the less to fear. But there’ll be need o’ mair than you and me, for the parish is dementit, and daft folk are ill to guide. The first thing is to get the deid buried. For God’s sake dinna speak of burnin’, for though the body is but our earthly tenement, burnin’ is ower like the Deil’s wark.”

That night Katrine came again, and with her Mark Riddel. The soldier had lost something of his bluff composure, and a troubled eye met David’s.

“I have been listening to a sermon on courage,” he said ruefully.

Katrine pointed a mocking finger at him.

“He would run away,” she said, “he, the old soldier of a hundred battles.”

“‘Deed and I would. A hundred battles, nor a thousand battles, wouldna reconcile me to the pest. I could name you many a bold captain who at the rumour of pestilence shifted his leaguer, though he would have held his ground before all the Emperor’s armies. But it seems I must take my orders from this child, when I hoped to slip off cannily to a cleaner countryside. . . . Ugh, Katrine, my dear, I wish you had set me an easier task than to sweep the midden of Woodilee and turn sexton.”

“It’s an armed and mailed sexton you must be,” she said. “You may have to put reason into the folk with the flat of your sword. Comfort yourself, Mr. Mark, this task is not so much unlike that you were bred to.”

The soldier grew visibly more cheerful when he heard that there were only three volunteers for the business. “There’s trouble brewing, then,” he said, “and it’s God’s mercy that I’ve won a certain respect in the parish, for it looks as if more persuasion would be needed than a good word and a clap on the back. When do we start our dowie job, for I confess I would sooner be at it than thinking of it?”

“A lean man like you, all bone and whipcord, need not fear,” said David.

“Tut, man,” said Mark impatiently, “fear is not in the question. My trouble is that I’ve a nice stomach and a fastidious nose. Death, whether it comes by pest or steel, is the same to me, and that’s a thing worth less than a strae. . . . God’s curse on this weather! . . . To work, Mr. David, or I’ll be rueing my bargain.”

For three days and nights the three men wrought at their repulsive task with niggardly intervals for food and sleep. They made a list of the stricken houses and forced their way into them, even when the doors were bolted. The dead were buried — some in the kirkyard, some in near-by fields, and this duty fell especially on Amos Ritchie, who performed it with dogged fidelity. Now and then there was trouble — a crazed wife or mother would refuse to part with the body of a husband or child, and in some cases the minister had to intervene with stern appeals. More difficult was the business of keeping houses, where the sick lay, open to the air and light. David and Mark had to drive cowering sons out of doors with threats of violence, and in some cases with violence itself. One obstinate household had their door smashed by Amos’s axe; another was turned neck and crop into the byre that a sick woman might have peace and air. The three men constituted themselves a relieving force, and had often to do the fetching of food and water. Terrible were the sights revealed behind many of those bolted doors and windows, and though Amos seemed unaffected, the other two had often to rush to the air to check their nausea. Thanks they got none, rarely even curses; the miserable folk were too sunk in despair for either. Yet it is likely they would have failed, had not the news of recoveries got about. Besides the hind at the Mains, two children had now weathered the storm and were reported to be mending fast. The communal mind of Woodilee, which up to then had been blank fatalism and lethargy, was now shot with gleams of hope. The pest might have worked itself out and be on the decline: the corridor was still long and black, but there was a pinprick of light at the end of it. . . . Also Mark Riddel in himself was a cogent persuasion. The dark keen face and the reputation of mystery and command which he had won at the witch-pricking were arguments sufficiently potent, apart from the long sword which he wore at his side. For in this work the douce tacksman of Crossbasket had disappeared: it was the captain of Mackay’s who gave orders and saw that they were obeyed.

By Candlemas it was clear that the tide had turned, for there were more on the way to recovery than dying. Well it was that the change had come, for the weather now broke — not, as David had prayed, in wholesome frost, but in perpetual drenching rains. The downpour had come in an instant; within half an hour during the night the wind had shifted, the sky had clouded, and the fall had begun. It was the night, the eve of Candlemas, which the three men had chosen for their work of burning. Now that people were beginning to move about the streets again, it was essential to get rid of centres of infection, and two of the worst were cottages in the clachan where all the inmates had died. Such houses could only be purified by burning, and about ten that night fire was put to them. Dry as tinder, they blazed furiously to heaven, and there were those in the parish, dabblers in witchcraft, who must have turned scared eyes to the glow which was fiercer than any that the altar in the Wood had known. . . . But in an hour came the rain, and the murky smoke-wreaths were turned to steaming embers.

It was a proof of the returning strength of the parish that the burning of the cots startled it out of apathy. Woodilee feebly and confusedly began to take stock of things, and tongues started to wag again. The numbness of loss, the languor of fear, gave place to recrimination. Who was responsible for the calamity of the pest? It must be a mark of the Lord’s displeasure, but against whom? They remembered that their minister lay under the ban of the Kirk — had been forbidden to conduct ordinances — was convicted of malignancy and suspected of worse. In their search for a scapegoat many fastened upon David. Practical folk said that he had been in Edinburgh in the time of plague, and had maybe brought back the seeds of it. The devout averred that the uncanny weather had followed upon his public sins, and that the pest had come close on the heels of the Presbytery’s condemnation. Was there not the hand of God in this, a manifest judgment? The ways of the Almighty were mysterious, and He might ordain that the people should die for the sins of one man. Even those who had been on David’s side were shaken in their confidence.

To crown all, came the events of the past week. To his critics there was no reason in his doings: they believed the pestilence to be a visitation of Heaven, to be stayed not by the arm of flesh, but by fasting and prayer. He had been assiduous in his futile visiting, it was true, and he had buried the dead; but he had broken in on their suffering with violent hands, and had herded men and women like brute beasts. Doors and windows, open to the February rains, attested his methods; by his act two cottages, once snug and canty, were now grey ashes. . . . Amos Ritchie in such matters was but a tool; Mark Riddel was too much feared to be the mark of censorious tongues; but David, still their titular minister, was a predestined target.

And as the village crept back to life, and those who had escaped took heart to do a little work again, and the convalescent staggered to their doors and looked on the world, there arose stranger rumours. The minister was all day out and about — praying on occasion, but more often engaged in homely tasks like cleaning up a kitchen and boiling water for those who were too frail to help themselves. Dark looks and ugly mutterings often followed him, but he was too intent upon his work to take heed of them. The general sullenness he set down to the dregs of grief and terror. That was for the daylight hours, but — it was whispered — after nightfall he had a companion. There were stories of a woman, a creature beautiful and young, who sang in a honeyed voice, and appeared especially at the bedsides of the children. At first few credited the tale, but presently came ample confirmation. She had been seen at three houses in the clachan, at the Mirehope herd’s, at the Mains; with her had been the minister; and the bairns to whom she had spoken cried for her return. . . . The old and wise shook their heads. There was no such woman in the parish or in all the countryside. And some remembered that the minister in the back-end had been observed to meet with a woman in the Wood, and that she had seemed to those who saw her to be no mortal, but the Queen of Elfhame.

The truth was that no commands of Mark, no protestations of David, could keep Katrine out of the village. She saw the reason for not appearing in the daylight, for a stranger in Woodilee — above all such a stranger as she — would have been too much for the brittle nerves of the parish. But after nightfall the case was different, and when with David she had once stood by the bed of a sick child, nothing could prevent her making a nightly duty of it. Into those sodden, woeful households she entered like a spring wind; the people may have marvelled, but they were still too apathetic to ask questions, and they felt dumbly her curative power. Among unkempt pallid men and frowsy wild-eyed women the face bright with the weather, the curls dabbled with rain, the cool firm arm, the alert figure, worked a miracle, as if an angel had troubled the stagnant waters of their life. Her hand on a child’s hot brow sent it into a peaceful sleep; her presence gave to the sick the will to live and to the fearful a gleam of courage. What they thought and said when she had gone will never be known, but for certain they longed for her coming again.

On the 18th day of February the pestilence took its last victim — an old woman, the mother of the Windyways herd, and the earth was still fresh on her grave when the rain ceased. The wind swung to the north, and the black frost for which David had longed settled on the land. It put an end to the pest, but it bore hard on the convalescent, and the older and feebler died under its rigour. In the pure cold air the taint seemed to pass from the land, and the problem of David and his helpers was now a straightforward fight with normal ailments and the normal winter poverty. Stock during the visitation had been scarcely tended, and the byres and infields were full of dead beasts; while in the general terror the customary frugality of the parish had been forgotten and many a meal-ark was empty. There was need of clothing and food, of fuel and cordials, and it did not appear where they were to come from.

There was no help to be looked for from outside, for to the neighbourhood Woodilee was like a leper settlement; none would have dared to enter the place, and had a Woodilee man shown his face in another parish he would have been driven back with stones. Mr. Fordyce managed to send to David more than one distressful letter, lamenting that for the sake of his own people he could not lend his brother a helping hand; but save for that, from the 8th day of January to the 15th day of March there was no communication with the outer world. In this crisis Mark Riddel wrought mightily. He had ways and means of getting supplies from distant places, and his pack-horses, guided by himself or Amos Ritchie, brought meal and homespun blankets from quarters which no man knew of. David exhausted the manse stores, and Isobel kilted her coats and, with a charity seasoned by maledictions, kept her pot or girdle continually on the fire. But it was the house of Calidon that provided the main necessaries. Its brew-house and its girnel, its stillroom and its cellars, not to speak of Mistress Grizel’s private cordials, were plundered for the sake of a parish which Mistress Grizel could not refer to without a sour grimace. When Katrine rode to the manse of a night she would bring with her usually a laden shelty.

The end of the plague was for David a harder season even than its height. For with convalescence Woodilee seemed to lose its wits. Before it had sat dazed and broken under the rod; now it woke to an ardour of self-preservation. At the beginning the people seemed to be careless of infection; now the survivors were possessed with a craze to live, and fought like terrified animals to get out of danger. They could not leave the parish bounds, but those that were able fled from the village. The leaky sheilings on the hills, occupied by the ewe-milkers during the height of summer, gave lodging to many, and several died there of the violence of the frost. The outlying farms were believed to be the safer, so Mirehope and Nether Fennan had many undesired tenants in their outhouses. The result was that, in a season of convalescence, when nursing was especially needed, the bedridden were often left deserted. David tried to enlist men and women who had either escaped the plague or had been for some weeks recovered, but he got only fierce denials or an obstinate silence. The place had become brutish, and the selfishness of beasts seemed to have become the rule of life.

The one exception was Chasehope. During the worst weeks the clachan had had no news of him, but it was rumoured that he had made a fortress of his farm-town, and had assiduously tended his own people. At any rate at Chasehope there had been only one death. Now he appeared in the street, and to David’s amazement it was clear that he came on an errand of mercy. His house seemed still to be well provided, and he brought with him a certain amount of provender. This he did not bestow indiscriminately but only on certain families, which David guessed to contain members of the coven. To these he spoke with authority, and he used his power to put reason into the distracted.

He alone in the place seemed to have no fear of infection — to be careless of the risk which had sent panic abroad among the others. He passed the minister with a grave salutation, and showed no wish to give or ask for help; he had some business afoot which was his private concern. But the fact stood out that this man, alone in Woodilee, had mastered fear.

Once in a cottage where a child was recovering he came upon David and Katrine. The girl was sitting on a stool by the bed making a toy out of reeds for the child’s amusement, and singing a French nursery song about Cadet Roussel and his three houses. David lifted his eyes from admiring the grace and swiftness of her hands to see Chasehope’s heavy white face in the glow of the firelight. The latter doffed his bonnet at the sight of Katrine, and murmured some civility. Clearly he knew her, for he picked up a reed from the floor. “Frae the Calidon mill-dam, belike,” he said.

“You are the one man in Woodilee who has courage,” David said. “You are no friend of mine, Ephraim Caird, but I give you the praise of a stout heart.”

“Why should I be feared?” the other asked. “Why should I dread to walk even in the valley of death if His rod and staff are there to comfort me?”

“Why should you! But many professors are of a different mind.”

“They are but poor professors, then. I fear no ill, for I am in the Lord’s hand till His appointed time.”

“But many who do not fear death fear to die by the pest.”

“Ay, but I have my assurance. I have the Lord’s own promise, Mr. Sempill. I ken as weel that no pest can touch me as that my name is Ephraim Caird and my habitation is Chasehope. It’s the lack o’ sound doctrine that gars folk turn cowards — they dinna lippen enough to the Lord — they havena a firm enough grip o’ their calling and election. I have my compact sure, and I ken that the Lord will no gie me a back-cast. I can rejoice even in this sore affliction, for He hath demanded a sacrifice, and what is man to question His will? Dear in His sight is the death of His saints — ay, and of sinners, too, for His judgments are not exhausted. There’s mair to come, Mr. Sempill — take tent o’ that, sir — the conviction is heavy on me that the wind o’ His displeasure has still a blast to blaw.”

The pale eyes had almost the green of a cat’s in the dim light, and the bald brows above gave the whole face the air of a mask, which at any moment might slip and reveal nightmare lineaments. The child in the bed looked up as he spoke, saw his face and screamed in terror, and Katrine, after one glance behind her, was busied in crooning consolations. . . . In that moment David had a revelation. This man, secure in his election to grace, secure against common fear, was likewise secure against common reason. He was no hypocrite. To him the foulest sin would be no sin — its indulgence would be part of his prerogative, its blotting out an incident in his compact with the Almighty. He could lead the coven in the Wood and wallow in the lusts of the flesh, and his crimes would be but the greater vindication of God’s omnipotence. . . . In that illuminating instant madness had looked out of his eyes.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/b/buchan/john/witch_wood/chapter18.html

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