Witch Wood, by John Buchan

Chapter 2

The Road to Calidon

The minister sat at his supper of porridge and buttermilk when Isobel broke in on him, her apple-hued face solemn and tearful.

“There’s ill news frae up the water, Mr. Sempill. It’s Marion Simpson, her that’s wife to Richie Smail, the herd o’ the Greenshiel. Marion, puir body, has been ill wi’ a wastin’ the past twalmonth, and now it seems she’s near her release. Johnnie Dow, the packman, is ben the house, and he has brocht word that Richie is fair dementit, and that the wife is no like to last the nicht, and would the minister come up to the Greenshiel. They’ve nae bairns, the Lord be thankit; but Richie and Marion have aye been fell fond o’ ither, and Richie’s an auld exercised Christian and has been many times spoken o’ for the eldership. I doot ye’ll hae to tak’ the road, sir.”

It was his first call to pastoral duty, and, though he had hoped to be at his books by candle-light, David responded gladly. He put his legs into boots, saddled his grey cob, flung his plaid round his shoulders, and in ten minutes was ready to start. Isobel watched him like a mother.

“I’ll hae a cup o’ burned yill [ale] waitin’ for ye to fend off the cauld — no but what it’s a fine lown [mild] nicht. Ye ken the road, sir? Up by Mirehope and round by the back o’ the Hill.”

“There’s a quicker way by Roodfoot, and on this errand there’s no time to lose.”

“But that’s through the Wud,” Isobel gasped. “It’s no me that would go through the Wud in the dark, nor naebody in Woodilee. But a minister is different, nae doot.”

“The road is plain?” he asked.

“Aye, it’s plain eneuch. There’s naething wrong wi’ the road. But it’s an eerie bit when the sun’s no shinin’. But gang your ways, sir, for a man o’ God is no like common folk. Ye’ll get a mune to licht ye back.”

David rode out of the kirkton, and past the saughs and elders which marked the farm of Crossbasket, till the path dipped into the glen of the Woodilee burn and the trees began. Before he knew he was among them, old gnarled firs standing sparsely among bracken. They were thin along the roadside, but on the hill to his right and down in the burn’s hollow they made a cloud of darkness. The August night still had a faint reflected light, and the track, much ribbed by tree roots, showed white before him. The burn, small with the summer drought, made a far-away tinkling, the sweet scents of pine and fern were about him, the dense boskage where it met the sky had in the dark a sharp marmoreal outline. The world was fragrant and quiet; if this be the Black Wood, thought David, I have been in less happy places.

But suddenly at a turn of the hill the trees closed in. It was almost as if he had stripped and dived into a stagnant pool. The road now seemed to have no purpose of its own, but ran on sufferance, slinking furtively as the Wood gave it leave, with many meaningless twists, as if unseen hands had warded it off. His horse, which had gone easily enough so far, now needed his heel in its side and many an application of his staff. It shied at nothing visible, jibbed, reared, breathing all the while as if its wind were touched. Something cold seemed to have descended on David’s spirits, which, as soon as he was aware of it, he tried to exorcise by whistling a bar or two, and then by speaking aloud. He recited a psalm, but his voice, for usual notably full and mellow, seemed not to carry a yard. It was forced back on him by the trees. He tried to shout, with no better effect. There came an echo which surprised him, till he perceived that it was an owl. Others answered, and the place was filled with their eldritch cries. One flapped across the road not a yard from him, and in a second his beast was on its haunches.

He was now beyond the throat of the glen, and the Woodilee burn had left him, going its own way into the deeps of Fennan Moss, where the wood was thin. The road plucked up courage, and for a little ran broad and straight through a covert of birches. Then the pines closed down again, this time with more insistence, so that the path was a mere ladder among gnarled roots. Here there were moths about — a queer thing, David thought — white glimmering creatures that brushed his face and made his horse half crazy. He had ridden at a slow jog, but the beast’s neck and flanks were damp with sweat. Presently he had to dismount and lead it, testing every step with his foot, for there seemed to be ugly scaurs breaking away on his left. The owls kept up a continuous calling, and there was another bird with a note like a rusty saw. He tried to whistle, to shout, to laugh, but his voice seemed to come out of folds of cloth. He thought it was his plaid, but the plaid was about his chest and shoulders and far from his mouth. . . . And then, at one step the Wood ceased and he was among meadows.

He knew the place, for after the darkness of the trees the land, though the moon had not risen, seemed almost light. There in front was the vale down which Aller flowed, and on the right was his own familiar glen of Rood. Now he could laugh at his oppression — now that he was among the pleasant fields where he had played as a boy. . . . Why had he forgotten about the Black Wood, for it had no part in his memories? True, he had come always to Roodfoot by the other road behind the Hill of Deer, but there were the dark pines not a mile off — he must have adventured many times within their fringes. He thought that it was because a child is shielded by innocence from ugliness. . . . And yet, even then, he had had many nightmares and fled from many bogles. But not from the Wood. . . . No doubt it was the growing corruption of a man’s heart.

The mill at Roodfoot stood gaunt and tenantless, passing swiftly into decay. He could see that the mill-wheel had gone, and its supports stood up like broken teeth; the lade was choked with rushes; the line of a hill showed through the broken rigging. He had known of this, but none the less the sight gave him a pang, for David was a jealous conserver of his past.. .. But as the path turned up the glen beside the brawling Rood, he had a sudden uplifting of spirit. This could not change, this secret valley, whose every corner he had quartered, whose every nook was the home of a delightful memory. He felt again the old ardour, when, released from Edinburgh, he had first revisited his haunts, tearful with excited joy. The Wood was on him again, but a different wood, his own wood. The hazels snuggled close to the roadside, and the feathery birches and rowans made a canopy, not a shadow. The oaks were ancient friends, the alders old playmates. His horse had recovered its sanity, and David rode through the dew-drenched night in a happy rapture of remembrance.

He was riding up Rood — that had always been the thing he had hoped to do. He had never been even so far as Calidon before, for a boy’s day’s march is short. But he had promised himself that some day when he was a man he would have a horse, and ride to the utmost springs — to Roodhope-foot, to the crinkle in Moss Fell where Rood was born. . . . “Up the water” had always been like a spell in his ear. He remembered lying in bed at night and hearing a clamour at the mill door: it was men from up the water, drovers from Moffat, herds from the back of beyond, once a party of soldiers from the south. And up the water lay Calidon, that ancient castle. The Hawkshaws were a name in a dozen ballads, and the tales of them in every old wife’s mouth. Once they had captained all the glens of Rood and Aller in raids to the Border, and when Musgrave and Salkeld had led a return foray, it was the Hawkshaws that smote them mightily in the passes. He had never seen one of the race; the men were always at the wars or at the King’s court; but they had filled his dreams. One fancy especially was of a little girl — a figure with gold hair like King Malcolm’s daughter in the “Red Etin of Ireland” tale — whom he rescued from some dire peril, winning the thanks of her tall mail-clad kin. In that dream he too had been mail-clad, and he laughed at the remembrance. It was a far cry from that to the sedate minister of Woodilee.

As he turned up the road to the Greenshiel he remembered with compunction his errand. He had been amusing himself with vain memories when he was on the way to comfort a bed of death. Both horse and rider were in a sober mood when they reached the sheiling, the horse from much stumbling in peat-bogs, and the man from reflections on his unworthiness.

Rushlights burned in the single room, and the door and the one window stood open. It was a miserable hut of unmortared stones from the hill, the gaps stuffed with earth and turf, and the roof of heather thatch. One glance showed him that he was too late. A man sat on a stool by the dead peat-fire with his head in his hands. A woman was moving beside the box bed and unfolding a piece of coarse linen. The shepherd of the Greenshiel might be an old exercised Christian, but there were things in that place which had no warrant from the Bible. A platter full of coarse salt lay at the foot of the bed, and at the top crossed twigs of ash.

The woman — she was a neighbouring shepherd’s wife — stilled her keening at the sound of David’s feet.

“It’s himsel’,” she cried. “Richie, it’s the minister. Wae’s me, sir, but ye’re ower late to speed puir Mirren. An hour syne she gaed to her reward — just slipped awa’ in a fit o’ hoastin’ [coughing]. I’ve strauchten’d the corp and am gettin’ the deid claes ready — Mirren was aye prood o’ hers, and keepit them fine and caller wi’ gall and rosmry. Come forrit, sir, and tak’ a look on her that’s gane. There was nae deid-thraws wi’ Mirren, and she’s lyin’ as peacefu’ as a bairn. Her face is sair faun in, but I mind when it was the bonniest face in a’ Rood water.”

The dead woman lay with cheeks like wax, a coin on each eye, so that for the moment her face had the look of a skull. Disease had sculptured it to an extreme fineness, and the nose, the jaw, and the lines of the forehead seemed chiselled out of ivory. David had rarely looked on death, and the sight gave him a sense first of repulsion and then of an intolerable pathos. He scarcely heard the clatter of the shepherd’s wife.

“She’s been deein’ this mony a day, and now she’s gane joyfully to meet her Lord. Eh, but she was blithe to gang in the hinner end. There was a time when she was sweir to leave Richie. ‘Elspet,’ she says to me, ‘what will that puir man o’ mine dae his lee lane?’ and I aye says to her, ‘Mirren, my wumman, the Lord’s a grand provider, and Richie will haud fast by Him. Are not twa sparrows,’ I says —”

David went over to the husband on the creepie by the fireside, and laid his hand on his shoulder. The man sat hunched in a stupor of misery.

“Richie,” he said, “if I’m too late to pray with Marion, I can pray with you.”

He prayed, as he always prayed, not in a mosaic of Scripture texts, but in simple words; and as he spoke he felt the man’s shoulder under his hand shake as with a sob. He prayed with a sincere emotion, for he had been riding through a living, coloured world, and now felt like an icy blast the chill and pallor of death. Also he felt the pity of this lifelong companionship broken, and the old man left solitary. When he had finished, Richie lifted his face from his hands, and into his eyes, which had been blank as a wall, came the wholesome dimness of tears.

“I’m no repinin’,” he said. “The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away, and I bless His name. What saith the Apostle — Mirren has gane to be with Christ, whilk is far better. There was mony a time when the meal-ark was toom [empty], and the wind and weet cam’ in through the baulks, and the peats wadna kindle, and we were baith hungry and cauld. But Mirren’s bye wi’ a’ that, for she’s bielded in the everlasting arms, and she’s suppin’ rich at the Lord’s ain table. But eh, sir, I could wish it had been His will to hae ta’en me wi’ her. I’m an auld man, and there’s nae weans [children], and for the rest o’ my days I’ll be like a beast in an unco loan [strange lane]. God send they binna mony.”

“The purposes of the Lord are true and altogether righteous. If He spares you, Richie, it’s because He has still work for you to do on this earth.”

“I kenna what it can be. My fit’s beginnin’ to lag on the hill, and ony way I’m guid for nocht but sheep. Lambin’s and clippin’s and spainin’s [weanings] is ower puir a wark for the Lord to fash wi’.”

“Whatever you put your hand to is the work of the Lord, if you keep His fear before you.”

“Maybe, sir.” The man rose from his stool and revealed a huge gaunt frame, much bowed at the shoulders. He peered in the rushlight at the minister’s face.

“Ye’re a young callant to be a minister. I was strong on your side, sir, when ye got the call, for your preachin’ was like a rushin’ michty wind. I mind I repeated the heids o’ your sermon to Mirren. . . . Ye’ve done me guid, sir — I think it’s maybe the young voice o’ ye. Ye wad get the word from Johnnie Dow. Man, it was kind to mak’ siccan haste. I wish — I wish ye had seen Mirren in life. . . . Pit up anither petition afore ye gang — for a blessin’ on this stricken house and on an auld man who has his title sure in Christ, but has an unco rebellious heart.”

It seemed to David as he turned from the door, where the shepherd stood with uplifted arm, that a benediction had been given, but not by him.

The moon had risen and the glen lay in a yellow light, with the high hills between Rood and Aller shrunk to mild ridges. The stream caught the glow, and its shallows were like silver chased in amber. The young man’s heart was full with the scene which he had left. Death was very near to men, jostling them at every corner, whispering in their ear at kirk and market, creeping between them and their firesides. Soon the shepherd of the Greenshiel would lie beside his wife; in a little, too, his own stout limbs would be a heap of dust. How small and frail seemed the life in that cottage, as contrasted with the rich pulsing world of the woods and hills and their serene continuance. But it was they that were the shadows in God’s sight. The immortal thing was the broken human heart that could say in its frailty that its Redeemer liveth. “Thou, Lord,” he repeated to himself, “in the beginning hast laid the foundations of the earth, and the heavens are the work of Thy hands. They shall perish, but Thou shalt endure; they all shall wax old as doth a garment, and as a vesture shalt Thou change them, and they shall be changed: but Thou art the same, and Thy years shall not fail.”

But as the road twined among the birches David’s mood became insensibly more pagan. He could not resist the joy of the young life that ran in his members, and which seemed to be quickened by the glen of his childhood. Death was the portion of all, but youth was still far from death. . . . The dimness and delicacy of the landscape, the lines of hill melting into a haze under the moon, went to his head like wine. It was a world transfigured and spell~laden. On his left the dark blotch which was Melanudrigill lay like a spider over the hillsides and the mouths of the glens, but all in front and to his right was kindly and golden. He had come back to his own country, and it held out its arms to him. “Salve, O venusta Sirmio,” he cried, and an owl answered.

The glen road was reached, but he did not turn towards Roodfoot. He had now no dread of the wood of Melanudrigill, but he had a notion to stand beside Rood water, where it flowed in a ferny meadow which had been his favourite fishing-ground. So he pushed beyond the path into a maze of bracken and presently was at the stream’s edge.

And then, as he guided his horse past a thicket of alders, he came full upon a little party of riders who had halted there.

There were three of them — troopers, they seemed, with buff caps and doublets and heavy cavalry swords, and besides their own scraggy horses there was a led beast. The three men were consulting when David stumbled on them, and at the sight of him they had sprung apart and laid hands on their swords. But a second glance had reassured them.

“Good e’en to you, friend,” said he who appeared to be the leader. “You travel late.”

It was not an encounter which David would have sought, for wandering soldiery had a bad name in the land. Something of this may have been in the other’s mind, for his next words were an explanation.

“You see three old soldiers of Leven’s,” he said, “on the way north after the late crowning mercy vouchsafed to us against the malignants. We be Angus men, and have the general’s leave to visit our homes. If you belong hereaways you can maybe help us with the road. Ken you a place of the name of Calidon?”

To their eyes David must have seemed a young farmer or a bonnet~laird late on the road from some errand of roystering or sweethearting.

“I lived here as a boy,” he said, “and I’m but now returned. Yet I think I could put you on your way to Calidon. The moon’s high.”

“It’s a braw moon,” said the second trooper, “and it lighted us fine down Aller, but the brawest moon will not discover you a dwelling in a muckle wood, if you kenna the road to it.”

The three had moved out from the shade of the alders and were now clear under the sky. Troopers, common troopers and shabby at that, riding weary, ill-conditioned beasts. The nag which the third led was a mere rickle of bones. And yet to David’s eye there was that about them which belied their apparent rank. They had spoken in the country way, but their tones were not those of countrymen. They had not the air of a gaunt Jock or a round-faced Tam from the plough-tail. All three were slim, and the hands which grasped the bridles were notably fine. They held themselves straight like courtiers, and in their voices lurked a note as of men accustomed to command. The leader was a dark man, with a weary thin face and great circles round his eyes; the second a tall fellow, with a tanned skin, a cast in his left eye, and a restless dare-devil look; the third, who seemed to be their groom, had so far not spoken, and had stood at the back with the led horse, but David had a glimpse above his ragged doublet of a neat small moustache and a delicate chin. “Leven has good blood in his ranks,” he thought, “for these three never came out of a but-and-ben.” Moreover, the ordinary trooper on his way home would not make Calidon a house of call.

He led them up to the glen road, intending to give them directions about their way, but there he found that his memory had betrayed him. He knew exactly in which nook of hill lay Calidon, but for the life of him he could not remember how the track ran to it.

“I’ll have to be your guide, sirs,” he told them. “I can take you to Calidon, but I cannot tell you how to get there.”

“We’re beholden to you, sir, but it’s a sore burden on your good~nature. Does your own road lie in that airt?”

The young man laughed. “The night is fine and I’m in no haste to be in bed. I’ll have you at Calidon door in half an hour.”

Presently he led them off the road across a patch of heather, forded Rood at a shallow, and entered a wood of birches. The going was bad, and the groom with the led horse had the worst of it. The troopers were humane men, for they seemed to have a curious care of their servant. It was “Canny now, James — there’s bog on the left,” or “Take tent of that howe;” and once or twice, when there was a difficult passage, one or the other would seize the bridle of the led horse till the groom had passed. David saw from the man’s face that he was grey with fatigue.

“Get you on my beast,” he said, “and I’ll hold the bridle. I can find my way better on foot. And do you others each take a led horse. The road we’re travelling is none so wide, and we’ll make better speed that way.”

The troopers docilely did as they were bidden, and the weary groom was hoisted on David’s grey gelding. The change seemed to ease him, and he lost his air of heavy preoccupation and let his eyes wander. The birch wood gave place to a bare hillside, where even the grey slipped among the screes and the four horses behind sprawled and slithered. They crossed a burn, surmounted another ridge, and entered a thick wood of oak, which David knew cloaked the environs of Calidon and which made dark travelling even in the strong moonlight. Great boulders were hidden in the moss, withered boughs hung low over the path, and now and then would come a patch of scrub so dense that it had to be laboriously circumvented. The groom on the grey was murmuring to himself, and to David’s amazement it was Latin. “Ibant obscuri sola sub nocte per umbram,” were the words he spoke.

David capped them.

“Perque domos Ditis vacuas et inania regna,
Quale per incertam lunam . . . ”

The man on the horse laughed, and David, looking up, had his first proper sight of his face. It was a long face, very pale, unshaven and dirty, but it was no face of a groom. The thin aquiline nose, the broad finely arched brow, were in themselves impressive, but the dominant feature was the eyes. They seemed to be grey — ardent, commanding, and yet brooding. David was so absorbed by this sudden vision that he tripped over a stone and almost pulled the horse down.

“I did not look,” said the rider, in a voice low-pitched and musical, “I did not look to find a scholar in these hills.”

“Nor did I know,” said David, “that Virgil was the common reading of Leven’s men.”

They had reached a field of wild pasture studded with little thorns, in the middle of which stood a great stone dovecot. A burn falling in a deep ravine made a moat on one side of the tower of Calidon, which now rose white like marble in the moon. They crossed the ravine, not without trouble, and joined the main road from the glen, which ended in a high-arched gate round which clustered half a dozen huts.

At the sound of their arrival men ran out of the huts, and one seized the bridle of the leader. David and the groom had now fallen back, and it was the dark man who did the talking. These were strange troopers, for they sat their horses like princes, so that the hand laid on the bridle was promptly dropped.

“We would speak with the laird of Calidon,” the dark man said. “Stay, carry this ring to him. He will know what it means.” It seemed curious to David that the signet given to the man was furnished by the groom.

In five minutes the servant returned. “The laird waits on ye, sirs. I’ll tak’ the beasts, and your mails, if ye’ve ony. Through the muckle yett an it please ye.”

David turned to go. “I’ve brought you to Calidon,” he said, “and now I’ll take my leave.”

“No, no,” cried the dark man. “You’ll come in and drink a cup after the noble convoy you’ve given us. Nicholas Hawkshaw will be blithe to welcome you.”

David would have refused, for the hour was already late and he was many miles from Woodilee, had not the groom laid his hand on his arm. “Come,” he said. “I would see my friend, the student of Virgil, in another light than the moon,” and to his amazement the young man found that it was a request which he could not deny. There was a compelling power in that quiet face, and he was strangely loth to part from it.

The four dismounted, the three troopers staggering with stiff bones. The dark man’s limp did not change after the first steps, and David saw that he was crippled in the left leg. They passed through the gate into a courtyard, beyond which rose the square massif of the tower. In the low doorway a candle wavered, under a stone which bore the hawk in lure which was the badge of the house.

The three men bowed low to the candle, and David saw that it was held by a young girl.

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