Witch Wood, by John Buchan

Chapter 19

The Sacrifice

As March drew to its close the wheels of life began once again to run creakingly in Woodilee. The frost disappeared under a week of southwesterly gales, and then the wind moved to the east and blew dry and blighting, so that the lean beasts shivered in the infields. The gross unseasonable herbage of the winter had gone, and it promised to be a backward spring. The men went out feebly to the farm-work, and the ploughing began, though the draught-oxen were so poor in condition that the work moved slowly. The siege, too, was raised. Johnnie Dow once again showed his cautious face in the clachan and brought news of the outer world; the pack-horses again struggled through Carnwath Moss; and there came word from Kirk Aller that the meeting of the Presbytery to adjudicate on David’s case was fixed for a day in April. Mr. James rode over from Cauldshaw and the kirk was opened, but David did not renew his preachings at the kirkyard gate.

The truth is that he was weary to the bone. Mark Riddel met him one morning on the road and drew rein sharply at the sight of his face.

“Man David, you’re like a ghost. You’ve worked your body ower sore these last months, and if you dinna take care you’ll be on your back. You and Katrine are two inconsiderate bairns. You’ve both of you done the work of ten men, and you’ll no listen to wiser folk. Take my advice and get furth of this woeful parish till your body is rested and your mind quieter.”

“I am summoned to my trial at Kirk Aller in a week’s time.”

“And that’s the crown of it! That’s what you get for wearing yourself to skin and bone for a thankless folk. There are times when I scunner at my native land. There’s a rumour that Montrose has escaped abroad and is now at the Emperor’s court, and if it werena for you and Katrine I could find it in me to join him. There’s a blight on the country which affects even a brisk heart like mine, and I’m getting mortal sick of the eternal crack of nowt and wedders.”

But though Mark came to the manse every evening and would have nursed him like a mother, David could not relax the tension of body and spirit. He slept badly, and in spite of Isobel’s coaxing ate little; his nights were filled with wild dreams, and, worse, these dreams seemed to pursue him in his waking hours. He felt no special ailment of body to which he could attribute his distress, beyond an extreme fatigue. He would take long walks by day and night, but though he returned from them very stiff and weary, they did not bring him healthful sleep. He tried to master himself, to laugh at himself, but the malaise would not be expelled. . . . He was the prey of childish fears, looking nervously for something malign to come out of the dark or round the corner. And presently the barriers of the real seemed to crumble. He saw faces where there were none, he listened to voices in the deepest silence. Once, coming at night up the manse loan, he heard footsteps on the dry earth approaching him. They grew louder, passed and died away behind him, and he realized that the footsteps were his own.

A word of Chasehope’s stuck evilly in his memory. The Lord had demanded a sacrifice, but the sacrifice was not yet complete, the man had said. The word tortured him and he could get no relief from thinking, for the thing was beyond thought. An oppression of coming disaster weighed on him. He told himself that his enemy had meant no more than the Presbytery trial, but he could not lay the ghost. Something darker, more terrible, hung on the skirts of his imagination. Chasehope was no doubt mad, but truth might lurk in madness; a maniac saw that which was hidden from others. It was for Katrine that he feared, and what he feared he could not give a shape to — there lay the agony of it.

Presently his old dread of the Wood returned — that dread which he thought he had exorcised for ever. He had defied it, but what if it should prove too strong for him? In his distraught thoughts the pestilence seemed to have come out of it — Chasehope had moved unscathed through the weeks of plague — Chasehope and the devils he served were the plague’s masters. Was there some other terror still in its depths waiting to be loosed on him? He had moments of clear-sightedness, when he despised himself for his folly, and realized that to be thus faint of heart was to acknowledge defeat and to abase himself before his enemy. But the conviction returned, stronger than will or reason, and David would walk the hill with clenched hands and muttering lips, or in his closet struggle in blind prayer for a comfort that would not come.

After Katrine’s nightly visits to Woodilee had ceased the minister had meant to go daily to Calidon. But with this new mood of terror upon him he was ashamed to face the girl; and he had sufficient manhood to put restraint upon his longings. The time came, however, when anxiety conquered scruples. He rode to Calidon with a fluttering heart, an excitement rather of fear than of joy.

Mistress Saintserf faced him grimly.

“What have ye done wi’ my bairn?” she demanded. “She is fair broke wi’ ridin’ the roads and tendin’ the riff-raff o’ Woodilee — and the haill parochine no worth a hair o’ her heid. Christian charity, says you — but there’s bounds to Christian charity! Ye’re a bonny lad to tak’ so little care o’ your joe.”

Presently she condescended to details. “She has nae strength, the puir thing — clean worn out like an auld bauchle [shoe]. Yestreen I garred her tak’ to her bed, and she’s lyin’ as biddable as a wean, and her for ordinar’ sae sweir to bide still. . . . Na, ye canna see her. But dinna fash yoursel’, my man. She’s no sick — just weary wi’ ower heavy a task. A long lie in her bed will put her richt, and a change in this dowie weather. Pray for a bit blink o’ sun. . . . Ye’re lookin’ gey gash yoursel’. Ye’d be nane the waur o’ a week on your back.”

As David rode homeward he remembered the last words and laughed at the irony. A week in bed, when he could scarcely endure three hours in a night! Mistress Saintserf’s news had put him into an agony of apprehension. He stabled his horse and set out to work off his anxiety by bodily fatigue, but it grew with every mile he walked. Weariness, he told himself, was only natural after such a winter’s toil; was not he himself worn out, and did not even Mark Riddel confess to a great fatigue? But he could not console himself with such thoughts. At any moment she might fall into a fever, and then — he remembered with dreadful distinctness the stages of the malady. Was this the last lingering effort of the pest? — he had heard of such cases coming weeks after the thing seemed to have been stayed. And always there rose in his mind Chasehope’s prophecy of a sacrifice still to come.

He would fain have gone back to Calidon and waited for news. Instead he sent Isobel with a message to Mistress Grizel. His housekeeper was noted as a skilful nurse and an amateur leech, and he begged that she should be allowed to help in waiting upon Katrine. The sending of her did something to ease his mind, for it was a direct piece of service to his beloved; moreover, if Isobel was in Calidon, he could go there as often as he wished and have speech with her, for he was a little ashamed to reveal to Mistress Grizel his lack of fortitude. Meantime he could fend for himself, and cook what food he needed.

The time passed on leaden feet, and the hours of darkness were one long sleepless nightmare. Next day he was early at Calidon and found Isobel with a composed face. “Ye needna tak’ it sae sair, Mr. David,” she assured him. “The leddy’s no that bad. Nae doot she’s sair weary, but the feck o’ the time she sleeps like a bairn, and there’s nae fever. There’s strong bluid in her that will no be lang ere it conquers the weakness. But losh, sir, ye’ve the face o’ a bogle. Awa’ hame wi’ ye and lie doun, or I’ll no bide anither hour in Calidon. Are ye takin’ your meat? Dinna look at me like a glum wean, but dae as I tell ye.”

David returned to the manse, and under the influence of Isobel’s cheerfulness fell asleep in his chair and slept till the late afternoon. He awoke freshened in body, but with a new alarm at his heart. Isobel had said there was no fever, but that meant that she dreaded fever. . . . By this time it might have come. Even now Katrine might be delirious. . . . He realized how swiftly during the pest fever had succeeded listlessness.

Nevertheless the hours of sleep had given him a greater power of self-control, and he curbed his instinct to ride forthwith to Calidon. He wandered through the house and out into the glebe, striving to fix his mind on small and homely things. It was the third day of April, but there was no sign of spring. The dislocation of the seasons had given the earth an autumnal air, for the shoals of fallen leaves lay as if it were November, and the frosts had not bleached the herbage. He remembered how a year ago at this time he had wandered on the hills and felt with joy the stirrings of new life. To-day the world was still clamped in bonds, and death was in the bare trees and the leaden sky. What had become of his high hopes? All gone save one — and that the dearest. A year ago he had had no thought of Katrine and had been happy in other things. Now these had been turned into ashes, but he had got Katrine in their stead. If she were to go —? The thought so chilled his heart that he fled indoors, as if in the house he could barricade himself against it.

In his study he turned over his books. He tried to pray, but set prayer was idle, for every breath he drew had become an impassioned supplication. He had out his notes on Isaiah and the prolegomena which he had completed, but his eyes could scarcely read them. How small and remote these labours seemed! Every now and then a quotation from the prophet stood out in his manuscript, and these were as ominous as a raven’s croaking. “Burning instead of beauty. . . . Their faces shall be as flames. . . . Through the wrath of the Lord of hosts is the land darkened, and the people shall be as the fuel of the fire. . . . This is the rest wherewith ye may cause the weary to rest.”

He turned from his notes in awe and took up his secular books. One he opened at random and saw that it was the Æneid, and the words which caught his eyes were “manibus date lilia plenis.” Small wonder that the book had opened there, for it was a well-thumbed passage; but he shuddered as if he had cast the sortes Virgilianæ and had got a doleful answer.

In the evening he found himself some food, and since the dark was full of ghosts for him, he lit many candles and banked up the peats on the fire. He was in a strange mood, rapt out of himself, suffering not so much pain in his thoughts as a fever of expectation. His fingers drummed ceaselessly on his knees; as he looked into the glowing peats he saw forms and figures that seemed to mock him; to his unquiet ears a wind was blowing round the house — a wind that talked — though the night was very still. And always there was in his head, like the refrain of a ballad, the words “Burning instead of beauty.”

He did not see Mark Riddel till the man was beside him and had touched his shoulder. Then he started up with a cry and encountered a grave, perturbed face.

“You had better come to Calidon,” Mark said. “Katrine . . . she has taken a turn for the worse. She has been in a fever since midday.”

It was the news he had been expecting, and David rose obediently.

“I’ll go on foot,” he said. “I can run faster than any horse.”

Mark looked at him anxiously. “You’ll do no such thing. You’d faint or you were across the Hill o’ Deer. Bide where you are and I’ll saddle your beast.”

The two set off at a gallop, but in the rough parts of the road Mark slackened and took David’s bridle. “Hold up,” he cried. “It’ll no mend matters if you break your neck.”

David asked only one question. “Have you got a leech?” he said.

“I’ll have no leeches. Your country botcher would only bleed her, and she hasna the strength for that. Grizel and yon wife Isobel are all the leeches that are needed, and I’m not without skill myself. Keep up your heart, David. All is no tint yet, and it’s a young life.”

At Calidon gate David spoke again. “Is it the pest?”

“I canna tell, for the pest has many shapes to it. Weakness and fever — there’s no other signs, though God kens that’s bad enough.”

He was taken straight to her chamber by Isobel, and found there Mistress Grizel, a silent, stern-faced guardian. Katrine lay tossing in high delirium, moaning a little, and moving her arms feebly on the coverlet. A bandage of wet cloths was on her brow, and, as David laid his hand on it, he felt the pulse of the fever beneath. Her long dark lashes lay on her flushed cheeks, but every now and then her eyes would open in a glassy stare. He took her hand and it was dry and burning.

“We maun let the fever rin its course,” said Mistress Grizel. “She maun fecht her ain battle without the help o’ man. God be kind to my bairn,” and she kissed the hot lips.

“Ye’ll be puttin’ up a prayer?” she turned to David.

“I cannot pray . . . I can only watch. . . . I beg you to let me watch here beside her.”

“Have your way. There’s little need o’ speech if there be prayer in the heart. Isobel will get ready your chamber, for ye canna leave this house.”

Presently David was in the sick-room alone, and if he could not pray he spent the hours on his knees. Isobel and Mistress Grizel returned from time to time; once Mark came in and put his hand on the girl’s brow. The night passed and the dawn came, but still David knelt at a chair by the bedside, his head sometimes in his hands and sometimes lifted to gaze at the face on the pillow. He was tortured with the sense of his frailty. A sacrifice, another sacrifice, was required, and for what sins but his own? He had been lacking — oh, he had been lacking in every Christian grace. In those black moments he saw himself as the chief of sinners, his struggles to rise foiled by a dragging weight of self, his ardours half-hearted, the fruits he brought forth but poor pithless stalks, his errors dark and monstrous like birds of night. He was not conscious of any special sin — only of a deep unworthiness which made him unfit to touch the hem of her garment. . . . Had ever any one so made music in the world by merely passing through it? And now — burning instead of beauty. . . .

Mr. Fordyce came over from Cauldshaw in the evening. He spoke to David but got no answer — it may be doubted if his words were understood. But an invitation to follow him in prayer was rejected, so Mr. James prayed alone —“for Thy handmaiden who is in the pangs of a great sickness — and for him Thy servant to whom her welfare is especially dear.” The prayer seemed to David to make an enclosure for Katrine and himself apart from the world. . . .

Mark took him to his room and made him lie down on his bed. He gave him a bowl of spiced ale, which David drank greedily, for he was very thirsty. Maybe the posset contained some innocent drug, for he slipped into dreams. They were pleasant dreams, shapeless and aimless, but with a sense of well-being in them which soothed him, so that he woke to Mark’s pressure on his arm with a vacant smile. But one glimpse of the real world — the corner of a four~post bed, torn arras, and the skirts of Mark’s frieze coat — brought down on him the dark battalion of his cares. He had no need to wait for the spoken word; Mark’s eyes were message enough.

“Come! The fever has abated,” were the words.

David’s brain was sluggish: the words seemed to be at variance with the speaker’s face; for a moment he had a bewildered spasm of comfort.

“She is recovered?”

“She is dying,” said Mark. “It is now the afternoon. She is going out with the daylight.”

The small lozenged windows, though there were two of them, lit the room faintly, for the sky was lowering and grey. Mr. Fordyce had returned, and poured out his soul at the bed-foot, but presently he grew silent like the others, for there was a hush in the room which made even the words of prayer a sacrilege. . . . The flush had gone from the girl’s face, and the waxen cheeks and the blanched lips told of a mortal weakness. Her hand was in David’s, as passive as a plucked flower. The lashes were quiet on her cheeks, and her faint, difficult breathing scarcely stirred the coverlet.

In that final hour peace of a kind entered into David’s soul. He was truly humble at last, for all the flickerings and unrest of human desires were stilled. The joy which he had scarcely dared to hope for, the possession of that bright and rare thing, was now confirmed to him. Katrine was securely his for ever. . . . At the very end her eyes opened, and if they looked a little blindly at the others they seemed to enfold him in a passion of love. There was even the glimmer of a smile. And then the gloaming crept round them, and, as Mark had foretold, she went out with the daylight.

The quiet was broken by the loud wailing of the two women, for the composure of even the iron-Lipped Mistress Grizel now failed her. Mr. Fordyce stilled it with an uplifted hand. “The lamb is safe folded,” he said.

Mistress Grizel, after the fashion of her kind, must speak. “She was a kind lassie, and had nae thochts but guid thochts, and if she was maybe no that weel instructed in sound doctrine, it was nae faut in her . . . she was aye blithe to hearken to Mr. James —” She stopped short at the sight of David’s face.

“She is now at the right hand of the Throne,” he said, “and I say that in the face of every minister that ever perverted the Word. She was made in the image of her Lord, and she has gone to meet Him.”

Later in the evening the mind of the practical Mistress Grizel turned to the dismal apparatus of death. “She’ll better lie in Cauldshaw in the Hawkshaw buryin’ ground. There’s room in the auld vault, the mair as it’s no likely Nicholas will lay his banes there.”

“Nay, but she will not lie in Cauldshaw. “David’s face had a strange calm in it and his voice was toneless and steady. “She will he in the part of the greenwood which was her own, in the place she called Paradise. I know her wishes as if she had told them to me. I will not have her laid in any kirkyard vault. . . . She is too young. . . . She is not dead but sleeping.”

Mistress Grizel protested, but half-heartedly. Mr. Fordyce had little objection to raise. “It is not the way of our Kirk,” he said, “to consecrate ground for the dead. All earth is hallowed which receives Christian dust. But lest the graves of the departed be forgotten, it has been the custom to gather them together in some spot under the kirk’s shadow. In a wild wood, among bracken and stones, it will be ill to keep mind of a place of sepulchre.”

“I will not forget it.”

“But when you yourself are dead and gone . . .?”

“What matters it then?” He could have laughed at the meaninglessness of human fashions. He felt that Katrine and he were in a sphere of their own, safe for ever from intrusion, a sphere independent of time and space, even of life and death. But Paradise had been the spot where their love had first been born; it had become in the mind a symbol and a mystery; let Paradise, therefore, receive the earthly covering of the blessed spirit, for even the blessed have their terrestrial shrines.

So it came about that by night — for Mistress Grizel would not permit a ceremony so unconventional in daylight — and by the light of the torches of Jock Dodds and Edie the falconer, the girl was buried near the spring in Paradise, with David and Mr. Fordyce at the grave’s head and foot.

To the former it was all a waking dream. The solid earth had become for him bodiless; the sun’s progress, human speech, rain, wind, the ritual of daily life, no more than a phantasmagoria: reality lay only in that inner world where Katrine still lived for him. He abode solitary in the manse, and refused to let Isobel return. Indeed he begged Mistress Saintserf to keep her and be kind to her.

“‘Deed, I will do that, and be glad to do it, for she’s a skilly auld body and a great stand-by in the house. But, Davie, my man, what is to come o’ you? I was lookin’ to get ye as a guidson, and the Lord kens Calidon needs a man about the place — what wi’ the forty thousand merks to be paid for Nicholas’s fine. . . . ”

But she saw that her words fell on unheeding ears. David’s eyes seemed to be looking beyond her to an infinite distance.

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