Witch Wood, by John Buchan

Chapter 20

The Judgment

David rode to Kirk Aller to face the Presbytery in a blustering day of April rains. The wind blew high from the south-west in the leafless branches, and tossed the rotting leaves which should long ago have been powdered by frosts and snows. Aller was red with spate, and in the haughs the flood-water lay in leaden shallows. The birds, who should have been riotous in the bent, were few and silent; scarcely a plover or a curlew piped; only from the gnarled firs of the Wood came the croak of a nesting raven. It was a day to deaden a man’s spirits, but David regarded it not. He was still in his secluded world, a chamber barred to all memories but one. He had no clear vision of the home of the blessed dead, and what he had would have been held unorthodox by the Kirk. Now he thought of her in a Platonic mood as inhabiting all things lovely and pure, a spirit as rare as the lingering light of sunset. But more often he pictured her as an embodied saint admitted into the fellowship of Christ, wrapped round with a richer love than mortals knew, but reaching out warm hands to his loneliness. And the words that came to his tongue were the lines of Peter Abelard:

“O quanta qualia sunt illa sabbata
Quæ semper celebrat superna Curia;”

but the sabbaths he dreamed of were not the sabbaths of the Kirk.

The world, the tangible world, was broken for him in fragments. His chamber was not only shut to its winds, but it seemed set in a high tower from which common realities showed infinitely small and distant. The Presbytery — the General Assembly — the Kirk — seemed tiny things vanishing down the perspective of an inverted spy~glass. He was armoured against censure, for it was idle to censure one who was overwhelmed by his own unworthiness and who at the same time saw all human authorities diminished to cockle-shells. He had no fears and no hates: God had smitten him, and, humble under that awful rod, he could view with indifference the little whips of his fellows. He did not blame them — why should dust accuse dust?

In his detachment only one thought affected him with any passion. He retained his horror of the Wood. If he were to fall he would fain have brought down with him that unholy temple. For Chasehope he felt no hatred except as its high-priest; the man himself, with his crazy twisted soul, was rather a mark for pity. But he would fain have rid Woodilee of that incubus.. .. He had failed, and Chasehope was the victor — Chasehope and the Wood. For a moment his mind returned to realities, and he questioned himself if he had left anything undone. This day his original libel would come before the Presbytery, and he had the right to call his witnesses. But where were they? Reiverslaw had been absent two months from the parish and had not yet returned, and without his testimony Richie Smail and Rab Prentice were meaningless voices. He could give his own witness, but that the Presbytery had already officially rejected. Let it go — the Almighty in His own time would be his vindication — he who was filthy let him be filthy still. . . .

“Ubi molestiis finitis omnibus
Securi cantica Sion cantabimus.”

But even in his secret world regret penetrated and irked him, for Melanudrigill was nigh to the greenwood and to Paradise.

The old kirk on the brae above the Aller bridge was crowded to its full. Never had been so large a meeting of Presbytery, both lay and clerical, for the case of the minister of Woodilee had made a great talk all winter in the glens. Woodilee itself, now purged of its taint, was strongly represented by four members of Session, and in a prominent place at the Moderator’s elbow sat Ephraim Caird. As David entered heads were averted, but as he advanced to the seat prescribed for him he found that Mr. Fordyce was his neighbour — Mr. Fordyce heavily muffled in his ancient plaid, and with a face whose ordinary sick pallor seemed to be flushed with a timid excitement. He seized David’s hand, and his own was hot and nervous, and his lips moved as if he were praying under his breath.

The forty-third Psalm was sung, there were two lengthy readings of Scripture, and then Mr. Muirhead, the Moderator, constituted the Court and prayed for guidance. David’s attention wandered, though he tried to supplement the public supplication with his own. . . . His eyes seemed to have become distorted and the whole assembly have gone crooked. The fathers and brethren were no more than a gathering of death’s heads, their voices were like the creaking of wheels and the scraping of boughs and the grinding of stones. The Moderator’s massive visage was the mask behind which his brain ticked small and foolish like a clock. The minister of Bold was only a child, a petted, noisy child. The grave countenances around him seemed shot with fear and confusion: almost it seemed he could look into their hearts and see terrors and jealousies writhing like coils of worms. . . . He rubbed his eyes and forced himself to attention. The Moderator was speaking of the charge against Chasehope and others anent the Wood.

“We have your written libel, Mr. Sempill,” he said. “It is your right to implement it by the calling of witnesses. Have you them here?”

“My principal witness, Andrew Shillinglaw in Reiverslaw, has left the parish because of the pest and is not yet returned. Without him I can do nothing.” David’s voice, to his own surprise, came out full and clear.

“Do you seek a postponement?”

David shook his head. “What boots it? The Lord will judge the wickedness in His own time and in His own way. But I would ask that the matter be put to him whom I have accused as principal, and that he deny or affirm it on his solemn oath.”

“You hear that, Ephraim,” said Mr. Muirhead. “I’m loth to put such a task on one of your noted godly walk, but it would maybe conduce to the satisfaction of the Court if you would formally and finally give these monstrous charges a solemn denial.”

Chasehope rose and called his Maker to witness that there was no word of truth in the accusation. His voice was steady, his expression of a decent gravity. He looked towards David, and there was not a quiver in the large placidity of his face.

“The Court is content,” said Mr. Muirhead. “Have you anything to add, Mr. Sempill?”

“The Lord will yet judge between us,” said David.

“That matter can therefore be dismissed,” said the Moderator, in a voice in which solemnity wrestled with satisfaction. “We proceed to the charges against our unhappy brother.”

He set forth — not unfairly — the counts against David. The principal was that abetting of malignancy with which the Court was already familiar, and which David had admitted and justified. But he added new matter.

“It has come to my knowledge,” he said, “through the praiseworthy vigilance of our friend Chasehope, that there is further incriminating evidence on this score. In the recent melancholy visitation at Woodilee, our brother was guilty of strange deeds and in strange company. It seems that he harled the poor folk out of their bits of dwellings, on the plea that when they crept together they fomented the pest. Thereby it is alleged he spread the taint of the malady, and sorely troubled many a death-bed. Further, he violently and wrongfully broke open doors that were barred to him and set fire to cot-houses where the sick had lain, thereby destroying gear which was not his and depriving the folk of their lawful habitations. I have here an attested statement setting forth the wrongs complained of. What answer do you make to that, Mr. Sempill?”

“I admit the acts, and reply that by their means and by God’s mercy the pest was stayed.”

There was a murmur of disapproval throughout the gathering, and Mr. Muirhead cast up his eyes to Heaven.

“More of this sinful pride! As if the hand of the Lord was stayed by breaking in the doors and burning the thack of honest folks’ houses! But these are matters which are properly for the civil courts, and do not come within the cognizance of this Presbytery. What deeply concerns us is the company in which it is alleged that these acts were done. Mr. Sempill had as his helper one Amos Ritchie, a dweller in Woodilee, of whom I had hoped better things, and one Mark Riddel, a new-come tenant of the mailing of Crossbasket. We have had news of this Riddel before. He took a leading part in defending a woman accused of witchcraft in the back-end, and — though it seems that the witch-pricker was a poor creature with some irregularities in his conduct — yet it cannot be denied that the words and doings of the man Mark Riddel on that occasion gave great offence to godly folk in Woodilee, and led to the just suspicion that he himself had meddled with unlawful matters. . . . Who think you that this Riddel turns out to be? Who but that Mark Kerr that was a colonel with Montrose and a notorious malignant and has been sought all winter by the arm of the law. Chasehope has riddled out the whole black business, and has those that will swear to the man. Information has been dispatched to the Procurator–Fiscal, and it’s like that by this time hands will have been laid on him.”

“I fear that he has gotten clean away,” said Chasehope. “The word this morn was that there was no reek in the Crossbasket lum.”

“He’ll no gang far,” said the Moderator, “for the countryside will be up against him. Now, Mr. Sempill, what say you on this count? Did you ken the true nature of this man Mark Riddel?”

“I knew that he had been a soldier of Montrose. What mattered his past if he were willing to help in a work of Christian duty?”

“Christian duty!” The Moderator’s face crimsoned with wrath. “The words should choke in your throat, sir. You dare to call it Christian duty to harry the living and perplex the dying for some whim of your own ignorant heart? You found a yoke-fellow worthy of you. It is borne in on me that you and your presumption and your slackness of walk and doctrine have been the cause of this sore dispensation in Woodilee. Upon your head, sir, lie the deaths and sufferings of your afflicted people.”

He checked himself with an effort and proceeded in a calmer tone.

“No evidence need be called on the main counts, for they have been admitted by the panel. By his own confession David Sempill, lately ordained minister of the Gospel in Woodilee, is guilty of the grievous sin of consorting with and abetting the declared enemies of Christ’s Kirk in Scotland. Under the specious plea of charity — whilk is a favourite device of the Enemy to delude mankind — he has given shelter to one whose hands were red with the blood of the saints, and has endeavoured to cumber the work of purging the accursed thing from our midst. Moreover, he has lately shown what was in his heart by further and intimate converse with the ungodly. I do not speak of other errors, of harsh and un-Christian conduct towards his congregation, of lack of judgment, and of a weakness in doctrine, whilk, if not actual heresy, is its near neighbour. I deal with the gravamen of the matter, a sin openly committed and indeed acknowledged and gloried in.”

Mr. Muirhead pursed his lips, and a sigh of approval rose from his hearers.

“But it is needful at all times,” he went on, “to temper mercy with justice. Our brother is young and has no doubt been led astray by evil conversation and by over-much carnal learning. There is yet room for repentance, and the Kirk is merciful to the penitent. If he will make full confession of his sins and renounce and abhor them and humbly seek forgiveness from an offended Jehovah, this Court will doubtless be prepared to deal tenderly with him. It would not consist with decency that he continue in the charge of Woodilee, but the matter of excommunication might be dispensed with. For let him understand clearly that if he persists in his contumacy he will be outcast not only from the ministry of Woodilee but from membership of the Kirk of Christ.”

His voice had become sensibly gentler. If his main object was to avoid too great a scandal in the Church, there may have been a spice of pity for the youth and the haggard face of the accused.

“I acknowledge myself most heartily to be the chief of sinners,” said David.

“There must be more than a general confession,” said the Moderator. “You must condescend upon the transgression. You must in this place confess the heinousness of your guilt on the precise counts I have expounded, admit your grievous errors and your abhorrence of them, and humbly submit yourself to judgment.”

“Nay,” said David. “I cannot admit that to be sin which I hold to have been my duty.”

Again from the assembly came a sound like sighing, but now it seemed to have a note of wrath in it, as if the breath came through clenched teeth. The Moderator shut his eyes as if to ward off an unbearable spectacle. Then he looked down on David with his brows drawn so that they made a line bisecting his great face.

“Man, man,” he said, “you are far from Christ. You confess your sin, but you hug to your bosom one darling iniquity which you proclaim a grace. You are blinded and self-deluded, and I see no hope for you in this world or the next. You are an outcast from the commonwealth of Israel.”

He inclined his head to Chasehope, who had plucked at his arm and now said something in his ear.

“I am reminded,” he went on. “Malignancy is not all the sum of the sins of this unhappy man. There was a charge which I had hoped there would be no need to press, but which in his condition of resolute impenitence I am bound to bring forward. He was seen in the back-end to frequent the Black Wood in the company of a woman, and it is alleged — nay, it can be proved by many witnesses — that in his doubtful work during the time of pestilence a woman was in his company. To public sins he would seem to have added private lusts. Answer me, sir, as you will answer some day to your Maker, who and what was the woman, and where is she to be found?”

The words scarcely penetrated to David’s brain, for he had already slipped away from the crowd of moody faces to his secret world. But in the hush that followed the question another voice spoke, a voice high-pitched and tremulous but as startling as a trumpet.

“She is with the angels in Heaven.” Mr. Fordyce had dropped his plaid from his shoulders, and stood up with raised arm, his eyes burning in his pale face. His repute as a saint was so well established that at any time he would have commanded silence, but now he spoke in a quiet so deep that his hearers seemed to be frozen in their seats. Even the Moderator stopped in the act of settling his bands, and his hand remained at his throat.

“I will speak and not be silent,” said the voice. “The woman whom you would accuse with your foul tongues is this day with her Lord in Paradise. Well I kenned her — she was Katrine Yester and she abode at Calidon — there was none like her for gentleness and grace. She was the promised wife of David Sempill — and in the time of calamity she left her bien dwelling and her secure life and wrought among the poor folk of Woodilee — ay, as Christ left His Father’s house to succour sinful men. . . . She is far ayont us for evermore, and in the New Jerusalem she will be so near the Throne that blessed will I be if I get a glimpse of her.”

The words — which when remembered later were accounted a horrid blasphemy — cast at the moment a strange spell over his hearers. The hush was broken by many turning their heads, as if they could not endure the sight of that prophetic face. Even the Moderator dropped his eyes; Chasehope stared at the speaker with half a smile on his lips.

“Fools, fools!” the voice went on. “I have been ower long silent because of the infirmities of my flesh. One came among you preaching Christ and you have stoned him, as the Jews stoned Stephen outside the walls of Jerusalem. I pray that it may be given him, like Stephen, to see the heavens open and the Son of Man standing on the right hand of God. . . . I tell you that there’s those among us now that will burn in Hell for this day’s work. Blind, blind . . . ”

He choked, his face coloured with a rush of blood, he swayed and would have fallen had not David caught him. The cessation of the haunting voice restored the assembly to its senses. Murmurings began, and the Moderator dropped his hand from his throat and found speech.

“This is most unseemly. Our brother is sick and has forgotten himself. Let the work of the Court proceed.”

David lifted the half-fainting Mr. Fordyce in his arms. He bowed to the Moderator. “My presence is no longer needed,” he said. “I have no more to say and am in the hands of the Court. Meantime I must look to my friend.”

He left the kirk with his burden.

He took him to the little inn in the Northgate and put him to bed. The landlady was a kindly soul and promised to tend him well; there was no serious illness — excitement and emotion and an unaccustomed effort had drawn heavily upon Mr. Fordyce’s small reserve of strength — he needed only rest to be himself again. David found a Cauldshaw man just setting off up the water, and sent by him a message to ease the mind of Mrs. Fordyce and tell her that her husband would return on the morrow. When he left him he was sleeping.

This business occupied his time till late afternoon, and gloaming had already set in before he rode out of Kirk Aller. The Presbytery business was long since concluded, and the kirk on the brae was vacant and locked. The members had departed, for the yard of the Cross Keys, which in the morning had been like a horse fair, was now empty. The wind, which had been growing in violence all day, had now reached the force of a gale, and as David turned the corner above the gorge where the Aller breaks from the hills into the haugh, it met him full in the face. He pulled his hat low on his head and looked back. The little town, very bleak and grey in the chill April evening, lay smoking with its hundred chimneys. The sight affected him with a painful regret. It seemed a last look upon the life from which he was now an outcast, a life which eighteen months ago he had so warmly embraced.

He was coming out of his abstraction now, and looking at cold realities. Mr. Fordyce’s outburst in the Presbytery had shattered his secret world. Katrine was in bliss, and he was left alone on the bare roads of earth. Very solitary he felt; his father was dead, Mark Riddel was a fugitive, Reiverslaw had failed him, his Church had cast him out; there was no place for him, it seemed, in all the habitable globe, no work to his hand, no friend to lean on. He was looking at life now in a light as bleak as that April day which was now vanishing from the hills. . . . He seemed to have lost the power of feeling. He had no grudge against his enemies, no hatred even for Chasehope; his humility had become so deep that it was almost the abnegation of manhood. He was very tired and had lost the will to contend. “Katrine, Katrine!” his heart cried, “I’m not wanted on earth, and there’s no comfort here for the comfortless. O my love, that I were with you!”

The night grew colder as it advanced, and the wind, which commonly he welcomed, now cut him to the bone. He drew his cloak round him, and tried to urge his horse to a better pace. But apathy seemed to have fallen on beast as well as on master, and it jogged funereally, as if in no hurry to leave the chilly out-of-doors for the manse stable. There was a moon behind the flying rack of the sky, and there was light enough to see the dark huddle of the hills. Only where the track dipped to the trees by the river-side was there any depth of shadow.

It was in one such patch of blackness that David heard the sound of a horse behind him. Presently the rider was abreast of him, and even in the dark it seemed that he recognized him. “Guid e’en to ye, Mr. Sempill,” said a voice, but a gust of wind made it hard to recognize it. The new-comer fell into step beside him, and when in a minute they came out of the trees, David saw that it was Chasehope.

“You are late on the road, friend,” he said.

“I had weighty business on hand,” was the answer. The man was in a good humour, for he was humming a tune.

“This has been a waesome day for you, Mr. Sempill,” he went on. “Ye have set yoursel’ up against God’s law and man’s law, and ye have taken a mighty fall. I bear no malice — though weel I might if the Lord hadna gi’en me grace to forgive. What I have done in your case I have done painfully as my solemn duty. But there’s pardon even for the chief of sinners, and it’s not to be believed that one like yoursel’, that had once a title in Christ, can be cast away. Seek mercy where it is to be found, Mr. Sempill.”

Chasehope spoke fast like one under the influence of drink, but the man was temperate, so it must have been some excitement of the spirit. In the dim light David could not see his face, but he knew the kind of light that was in his eye, for he had witnessed it before.

“I speak in all loving-kindness,” he went on. “If ye’re of the Elect, you and me will meet before the Throne. I would hold out a hand to a stumbling brother.”

David made no answer, but his silence did not check Chasehope’s flow, for he seemed to be burdened with that which must have vent.

“What have ye made of it wi’ your railing accusations? Bethink ye of that, Mr. Sempill. What has become o’ your uncovenanted Reiverslaw, and your Glee’d Mark wi’ his warlockry, and the bonny may ye trysted wi’? Ane is vanished like a landlouper, and ane will soon ken the wuddy [hangman’s rope], and ane is under the mools.”

David spoke at last, and had the other had ears to hear he might have detected a strange note in the minister’s voice.

“You speak the truth. I am indeed friendless and forlorn.”

“Friendless and forlorn! ‘Deed that’s the word. And wherefore, Mr. Sempill? Because ye have flung yoursel’ against the rock o’ the Elect who are secure in the Lord’s hands. What said the worthy Moderator after ye had gone? He likened the Kirk to the stone spoken of in Matthew twenty-one and forty-four —‘Whosoever shall fall on this stone shall be broken: but on whomsoever it shall fall, it will grind him to powder.’”

“There was another word spoken — that some for this day’s work would burn in Hell.”

Chasehope laughed his rare and ugly laugh. “Hoots, man, that was just puir Mr. Fordyce, and a’body kens him. No but what he has the root o’ the matter in him — but he’s a dwaibly body wi’ nae mair fushion than a thresh [rush].”

“Nevertheless he spoke truly. Hell is waiting for some, and maybe this very night.”

Again Chasehope laughed. “Is Saul also among the prophets?” he asked. “Who are you, a minister outed and excommunicat, that you suld take to the prophesyin’?”

“God makes use of the feeblest pipes to proclaim His will. I tell you, Ephraim Caird, that this very night judgment may overtake you.”

This time Chasehope did not laugh, but moved his horse a little apart.

“Do ye daur to threaten me —?”

“I threaten no man, but God threatens you.”

“Awa’ wi’ you! I have a firm assurance. And if ye daur lift hand on me —”

“Be comforted. My hand will not be lifted.”

The man seemed to recover his composure, for he edged his horse nearer and thrust forward his face.

“Ye’ve aye hated me. I could see it in your een the first day at the manse.”

“I have never hated you. There is no man living in whose company I would rather ride this night. I love you so dearly that I would save your soul.”

“You to speak of savin’ souls!” Chasehope began, and then stopped. For there was something in David which struck a chill even to his excited mind. The quiet masterful voice cut into his wild gabble like iron into peat. If there was madness in the man, there was a fiercer madness in the minister, for in the last minutes David’s weakness had fallen from him like rags, and he had quickened to a flaming zeal. It was a flame of such heat that it burned calmly, but the glow of it, radiating from him, made the other’s mere wildfire.

David spoke no further word, but a nervous restlessness came upon Chasehope. He blustered and bragged. See to what a pitch of esteem he had come from following the narrow way! And he whined. He had the frailty of all mortals, but it was atoned for by the imputed righteousness of his Redeemer. He seemed to long for a word of confirmation, and he pawed at the minister’s sleeve. But no answer came, and the silence of the other began to unnerve him. His voice had a startled note, he quoted texts as if they were supplications to the stony impassiveness of his companion. When his horse stumbled and he almost collided with the minister, he cried out suddenly, as if in fear.

They had crossed Aller half a mile below Roodfoot, and had come to the turning of the ways. The clouds had thinned and the struggling moon showed Melanudrigill before them, rising and falling like an ocean of darkness. David kept his horse’s head straight for it, and Chasehope, who had been riding on his left, edged his beast across the path.

“Ye’ll be for the short road. I’ll gang quicker by the back o’ Windyways. . . . Losh, that’s an awesome wind.”

“It is the wind of the Lord’s anger.”

“Guid e’en to ye, and God send ye a contrite heart!” Chasehope seemed to have recovered courage at the prospect of parting company.

David laid a hand on his bridle.

“Nay, you and I do not twine here. Our road lies yonder.”

“Are ye daft, man?” Chasehope cried, his voice strong again. “Who are you to order a man like me?” The voice was strong, but in its shrillness was disquiet.

“I do not order you. Look in your heart and you will find the compulsion. It was not for nothing, Ephrairn Caird, that we forgathered this night. The Lord ordained it, and in your marrow you know that you cannot leave me. This night we are in a closer bond than man and wife.”

“Havers!” It was the last spasm of bluster, and the voice was weaker than the word. “I’ll do no man’s bidding. Tak’ your hand from my bridle.”

The hand was raised, and the other cowered to his saddle-bow, as if to avert a stroke. But the hand did not fall. Instead it gripped his arm, and the grip seemed to crush his bones.

“You fool,” said the grave voice. “This night I have the strength of ten men, for the Lord is in me. I could strike you dead if I were minded, but the command is on me that we ride together.”

Chasehope’s arrogance had drained out of him, but it had left some dregs of courage. He struggled to compose his voice and recover his everyday demeanour.

“Weel, since ye’re so pressin’ I’ll do your will. There’s no half a mile differ in the roads.” But the words did nothing to break the spell which choked him. They were like the wry-mouthed bravado of a criminal at the gallows’ foot.

No word was spoken as they crossed the haugh and skirted the Fennan Moss, but had there been any one to see he would have noted that David rode erect like a trooper, while Chasehope hung like a sack in his saddle, and that David’s knee was hard pressed against the other’s, as if the two were shackled.

They came to the edge of the Wood, where the road bent to the right among the pine roots towards the glen of Woodilee burn.

“We dismount here,” said David, “for we cannot ride among the trees. The beasts will find their way home.”

Chasehope cried out, and his voice now was strangled with terror.

“The Wud! No the Wud! Ye daurna gang there. . . . ” He raised his arm and would have struck, but David caught his wrist. He overbalanced himself and rolled to the ground, and in a second David was beside him. The horses, alarmed by the scuffle, dashed up the track.

Fear made the man violent. He flung himself on David, but for all his weight found himself tossed down like a feather. Was this stern figure with the sinews of iron the minister whom he had despised?

The quiet voice spoke.

“You are gross and elderly and I have the exercised strength of youth. At no time could you hope to strive with me. But this night the might of the Lord is in me, and I could break you like a straw. . . . You will come with me, though I have to ding you senseless and carry you.”

The man scrambled to his feet and made the place echo with his cries for help. No answer came, except the flap of disturbed night birds.

“Where would ye have me gang?” he whimpered.

“Into the Wood — to the place you know of. Ephraim Caird, this night I give you the chance of salvation. I may have erred — my eyes may have deceived me — it may not have been you that capered and piped in a dog’s mask to yon lost crew. If I have been wrong, it will be proven yonder. If I have been right, you will be given a chance of repentance. We go up to the Mount together that you may choose between Abiron and Jehovah.”

Chasehope crouched like a dog. “I daurna — I daurna,” he wailed. “I’m a believin’ man, but I daurna enter the Wud. . . . It’s no the season — there’s fearsome things ryngin’ in’t. Oh, ye dinna ken. . . . Let me gang hame, and the morn I’ll gang on my hunkers to Kirk Aller and sweir that a’ I hae said against ye was a lee. I’ll confess . . . ”

David’s grip was on his arm, but he did not struggle. His legs were loosened, and his whole body drooped like a creature stricken with the palsy.

“I’ll make confession — I’ll tell ye things that are no to be named — I took the Wud wi’ ithers, but I kenned I was a redeemed soul and that the Lord wouldna cast me away. . . . I aye ettled to repent, for I was sure o’ the Mercy Seat. . . . It is written that Solomon went after the abominations of Moab, and was yet numbered among the Elect. . . . But I’ll hae nae mair o’t frae this day. . . . I’ll tak’ my aith on the Word. . . . I’ll cast my idols ahint my back . . . I’ll burn the books . . . I’ll forswear the Deil . . . ”

“You will do it yonder,” said David.

He had never entered the Wood from this side, and in the darkness the road would have been at all times hard to find, but now he seemed to have a map in his brain and to steer by an instinct. In this backward spring there was no sprouting undergrowth, but the dead bracken stalks had not yet shrunk to earth, and he waded waist-deep among them. The man beside him had lost the power of resistance. He followed like an obedient hound, without the need of David’s grasp on his arm. Often he stumbled, and once he fell into the dell of a burn and had to be lifted out, but he made no attempt at resistance or escape. He walked and sometimes ran, crouching almost double, and as he went he made little moaning noises which might have been prayers.

The wind was wild in the tree-tops, and rushing down the aisles and corries of the hillside made a sound which was now like a great organ and now like muffled drums. Higher they mounted till they reached a broad shelf of more level ground, where the covert was thick and the speed slow. . . . And then, almost before he was aware of it, David found himself looking at an open space with a dark stone in the midst of it.

The moonlight was faint, but the glade was clear in its outlines, a patch of grey turf in a ring of inky shadow. The altar was no longer white as in the summer midnight, but dark with the drenching winter rains. A bleak, sodden place it now appeared to David, a trivial place, no more than a common howe in a wood.

But the other seemed to look on it with different eyes. When he saw the stone he gave one shrill cry of terror and collapsed on the ground, burying his face in the moss as if to shut out the sight. David seized him and dragged him forward till he lay by the altar, and all the while his screams rose piercingly above the wind.

“There is no need for confession,” the minister said. “You have betrayed yourself. . . . Now I know with the uttermost certainty that it was you I saw here at Beltane and at Lammas.”

The man did not raise his head, but clasped David’s legs and nozzled him like a fawning dog, while, like a dog, he gave short, terrified yelps.

“Your sin is proven and acknowledged,” said David. “Here on the scene of your guilt you will choose your road. I say to you, as Elijah said to the people of Israel, ‘If the Lord be God, follow Him; but if Baal, then follow him.’ This night you renounce Abiron or renounce Christ.”

The man was silent, as if the extremity of fear had frozen his speech. But as David raised him, a shuddering like an epilepsy shook his body. His legs were limp, and David placed him on his knees so that his brow rested on the stone.

“Renounce your master here in his temple . . . I will give you words if you have none of your own. . . . Say after me, ‘I abhor and reject the Devil and all his works, and I fling myself upon the mercy of God.’ Man, man, it is your immortal soul that trembles above the Pit.”

The huddled figure was still silent. Then, after a violent shiver, his voice came back to him. He began to stutter words, words meaningless to David’s ear. It may be that it was the renunciation of his gods; but, whatever it was, it was not completed.

For suddenly energy returned to his limbs, and he sprang violently to his feet. Madness glowed in his eyes; his head was held for a second in a listening posture.

“They come,” he screamed. “The dogs! — the red dogs!”

David seized him, but at that moment the maniac’s strength far exceeded his own. He tore himself free with a rending of his clothes. His face was a limp vacancy of terror in which the eyes glared unseeingly. He leaped into the air, spun round, fell, laid his ear to the earth, and then, with incredible swiftness, ran uphill from the glade. Once he halted to listen, and then, so bent that he appeared to run on all-fours, and yelping like a stricken beast, he vanished into the shades. . . . In a pause of the wind David heard his movements grow fainter, and he thought he heard, too, a murmur of voices as at Beltane and Lammas. It seemed to him that these voices were now like the distant baying of hounds.

Lethargy returned upon David’s soul. He had done his duty, and at the last moment, like Samson, had brought down the false temple; but what signified it to one who had no further hope or purpose? He walked out of the Wood as steeled to its awesomeness as to the other common emotions of man. His heart had dried up within him, and his vitality had run down like an unwound clock. He had but the one thought — to visit Paradise again and Katrine’s grave, and this not for comfort but as a step enjoined by duty to complete the heavy weight of his loneliness. After that nothing mattered. His youth was gone, and he was become very old.

He crossed the barrier glen, brushed through the catkin-laden hazels, and came to his sacred glade. There was the well bubbling darkly, and there beyond it was the fresh-made mound of turf. . . . The sight melted something within him. He flung himself on the grass and his dry heart was loosened in tears. As he wept he prayed, and as he prayed he seemed to live once again the bright days when Katrine had sung to him among the flowers. Fragments of her songs came back to him:

“There’s comfort for the comfortless
And honey for the bee —”

Was there any comfort for a stricken man on this side of eternity? He had a vision of her face with its proud laughing courage, he heard again her voice coming faint and sweet from behind the hills of death. She was smiling, she was saying something too rare for mortal ears to catch, but it seemed to thaw within him the springs of life.

He lay long on the turf, and when at last he raised his head the dawn was breaking. The wind had fallen, and into the air had come the softness of spring. A thrush sang in the covert — he thought he caught the scent of flowers. . . . Of a sudden the world righted itself and youth came back to him. He saw brightness again on the roads of life and a great brightness at the end of them, where Katrine was his for ever among the eternal fields.

Rab Prentice, limping out in the early morning to see to the lambing ewes in his hirsel, had occasion to take a short cut through the hazel shaws. He was surprised to see a man walking with great strides from the coppice, and more surprised to recognize him as the minister. What did Mr. Sempill there at that hour? He watched the figure till it disappeared over the ridge, and then went home much puzzled to his cog of brose.

In after days Rab Prentice searched his memory for every detail of that sight, and often he recounted it to breathless listeners. For his were the last eyes in Woodilee to see the minister on earth.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/b/buchan/john/witch_wood/chapter20.html

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