Witch Wood, by John Buchan

Chapter 21

The Going of the Minister

Woodilee was early astir, for it was to be a day of portents in the parish. Word had come the night before of the judgment of the Presbytery — that their minister was deposed and excommunicated, and that Mr. Muirhead of Kirk Aller and Mr. Proudfoot of Bold had been deputed to preach the kirk vacant that very day. There was little work on the farms, for the lambing had scarcely begun, the ploughing was finished, and the ground was not yet dry enough for the seedbed; so the whole parish waited at the kirkyard gate.

Resentment was still deep against the minister as the cause — under Heaven — of the pestilence, and for his high-handed dealings during that time of trial. There were also the old grievances against him, so that those faithful to him were very few. Isobel was at Calidon, Reiverslaw had gone no man knew where, and only Amos Ritchie and one or two women were left to defend him. Strange news had come about the tenant of Crossbasket. There had been soldiers seeking him with a warrant for his apprehension; it seemed that the decent, quiet-spoken farmer-body was Mark Kerr, a kinsman of the Lord Roxburghe, whose name had appeared in many proclamations of the Kirk and the Estates, and who since Philiphaugh had been zealously sought for through the length of Scotland. Men remembered his masterful ways and declared that they had always known that he was gentrice; they remembered his handling of the pricker and were confident that they had detected his ungodliness. But that he should have lived among them gave them a feeling of distinction and adventure, and the younger people cast curious eyes towards the empty house of Crossbasket.

It was the first day that spring seemed to have come into the air, and the congregation, waiting in the kirkyard for the arrival of the ministers, were warmed by a mild and pleasant sun. The elders stood by the gate, each in his best attire, wearing — even the miller — an air of ceremonial gravity.

“This is a great day for Woodilee,” said Nether Fennan, “and a great day for Christ’s Kirk in Scotland. We cleanse the tabernacle of an unworthy vessel, and woe is me that some o’ the bauldest and stenchest Christians have no lived to see it. Peter Pennecuik — honest Peter had nae broo o’ Sempill — clouts o’ cauld morality, was his word — Peter has gane ower soon to his reward.”

“What’s come o’ Chasehope?” Mirehope asked. “He suld have been here langsyne. He’ll surely no be late on this heart-searching day.”

“I heard from the Chasehope herd,” said the miller, “that Ephraim never cam’ hame last night. The wife was sair concerned, but she jaloused it would be Presbytery business.”

“But that was a’ by and done wi’ by three in the afternoon. He would be seein’ Edom Trumbull about the new aits. Still and on, it’s no like Chasehope to let warldly matters interfere wi’ his Christian duty. . . . Eh, sirs, what a testimony Woodilee will bear the day! Mr. Mungo is to proclaim the outing, and Mr. Ebenezer is to preach the sermon, and on sic an occasion Bold is like a hungry gled and the voice o’ him like a Januar’ blast.”

Among the women sitting on the flat gravestones there was less talk of the Kirk and more of the minister. Most were bitter against him.

“They may out him and excommunicate him,” cried Jean of the Chasehope-foot, “but wha will restore me the braw bairn that dee’d in the pest whilk was sent to punish him? Answer me that, kimmers. I wad be the better pleased if I got my ten fingers at his thrapple.”

“Weel for you, wumman,” said another, “that Isobel Veitch is no here, or it’s your ain thrapple would suffer.”

“There’s a queer tale come up the water wi’ Johnnie Dow,” said a third. “There was talk, ye mind, o’ a lassie that he met wi’ in the Wud, and we a’ ken that there was a lassie wi’ him in the hinder days o’ the pest — the fairest face, some folk say, that they ever looked on.”

“Tuts, gossip, yon was nae lassie. Yon face was never flesh and bluid. It was a bogle oot o’ the Wud, and some says —” The speaker lowered her voice and spoke into her neighbour’s ear.

“Bogle or no, Aggie Vicar, it cured my wee Benjie, and nae word will be spoke oot o’ my mouth against it. The callant is still greeting for anither sicht o’ the bonny leddy.”

“Haud your tongues and let me speak. Johnnie Dow says the Presbytery had it a’ riddled out, and it seems it was nae fairy but a leevin’ lassie. And wha think ye she was? Nae less than the young mistress o’ Calidon.”

The women exclaimed, most of them incredulous.

“But that’s no a’. It seems that she and the minister had made it up thegither and she was promised till him. Mr. Fordyce o’ Cauldshaw telled that to the Presbytery.”

“Heard ye ever the like? Will Sempill be hingin’ up his bonnet at Calidon and turnin’ frae minister to laird? The lassie will no doubt heir the place, and it’s weel kenned that Sempill has walth o’ gear o’ his ain.”

“He canna weel do that if he’s excommunicat. He’ll aiblins [perhaps] be for fleein’ the country like the auld laird, and takin’ the quean wi’ him.”

“Ye havena heard the end o’ the tale,” said the first speaker. “Dinna yatter like pyets, or I winna get it telled. . . . The lassie is deid — deid three days syne o’ a backcast o’ the pest, and the minister is no to haud nor bind wi’ grief. Johnnie said he sat yestreen at Kirk Aller wi’ a face like a corp and took his paiks as mild as a wean, and him for ordinar’ sic an ettercap. Johnnie thriepit that he had maybe lost his reason.”

There was silence among her hearers, and only Jean of the Chasehope-foot laughed. “She’s weel oot o’ it,” she said, “and he’s weel served.”

“Wheesht, wumman,” said one. “The lad has sinned, but he’s but young, and his punishment is maybe ower sair.”

There was a movement among the crowd, for the ministers were seen approaching. They were received by the elders and conducted to the minute session-house, which was a pendicle on the east wall of the kirk. The congregation, according to custom, now entered the building, whence could presently be heard the sound of slow psalmody. Robb the beadle waited at the single door till the ministers reappeared, Mr. Muirhead in Geneva gown and bands, Mr. Proudfoot in his country homespun, for he was a despiser even of sanctioned forms. They too entered, and Robb followed, closing the door behind him, but leaving the great key in the lock.

Amos Ritchie arrived, moodily sauntering through the gate. He had been unable to face the kirkyard crowd, knowing that he would hear words spoken which might crack his brittle temper. He reached the door and was about to enter, when the sound of furious hoofs on the road made him pause. The rider hitched his bridle to the gate-post and strode up the path, and Amos saw that it was Reiverslaw.

“Am I ower late?” the new-comer panted. “What’s asteer in the kirk?”

“Ye’re ower late,” said Amos bitterly. “Yestreen the minister was condemned and excommunicat by the Presbytery at Kirk Aller, and Chasehope was affirmed a saunt for want o’ you to testify against him. This day Muirhead and Proudfoot are preachin’ the kirk empty.”

“God be merciful to me,” Reiverslaw groaned. “I only got the word last nicht, and I’ve left weary beasts on the road atween here and Langholm. . . . Where is the minister? Where is Mr. Sempill?”

“The Lord kens. He’s no in the manse, for I was there at skreigh o’ day, and he hasna been seen since he left Kirk Aller. . . . What does it matter? The puir lad has his name blastit, and Woodilee loses the best man that ever walked its roads. . . . Are ye for in?”

“I’m for in,” said Reiverslaw grimly. “If I canna help the minister I can mishandle some that hae brocht him doun. I’m thinkin’ Chasehope will hae sair bones or nicht.”

The two slipped through the door and stood in the dusk at the extreme back of the crowded kirk. The first exercises having been concluded, Mr. Muirhead was reading from the pulpit the finding of the Presbytery. The misdeeds of the minister were set forth seriatim with the crooked verbosity of a legal document. Then came the pith:

“Wherefore the Presbytery of Aller, in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, the sole King and Head of the Church, and by the power committed by Him to them, did, and hereby do, summarily excommunicate David Sempill, at present residing in the parish of Woodilee, delivering him over to Satan for the destruction of the flesh that the spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord, and the Presbytery did, and hereby do, enjoin all the faithful to shun all dealings with him, as they would not be found to harden him in his sins, and so to partake with him in his judgments.”

The Moderator read the words with a full voice and with relish. He outlined briefly the civil consequences attaching to excommunication, and dwelt terrifyingly on the religious state of one cut off from communion with Christ and His Kirk. Then he proceeded to depose the minister in absentia from the charge and to declare it vacant till such time as a successor was appointed. The appointment would be in the free gift of the people, subject to confirmation by the Presbytery, since Nicholas Hawkshaw, the chief, indeed the sole, heritor, was an outlaw and a fugitive. He concluded with prayer, a copious outpouring in which the godly in Woodilee were lauded for their zeal, condoled with in their sufferings, and recommended for a special mark of the Lord’s favour. Then he drew the skirts of his gown delicately around him, and gave place to the minister of Bold.

Mr. Proudfoot chose for his text second Kings the tenth chapter, the twenty-fourth verse, the second clause of the verse: “If any of the men whom I have brought into your hands escape, he that letteth him go, his life shall be for the life of him.” It was a theme that suited his genius, and never had he spoken with more freedom and power. Scripture was heaped upon Scripture to show the guilt of half-heartedness in God’s cause (“Curse ye Meroz, said the angel of the Lord”); the other charges against David he neglected, and concentrated on the awful guilt of unfaithfulness to the Kirk in her hour of trial. The bulk of the world lay prone under the foot of Satan, but in Scotland the Lord had set His poor people erect and committed His cause to their charge, and woe be to them if they faltered in that trust. At this point Mr. Proudfoot almost attained sublimity. There was a crusading zeal in his voice; his picture of the stand of the faithful remnant against the world was the vision of a stout heart.

He passed to David and his backslidings. He drew the minister as a weakling, beginning no doubt with an honest purpose, but soon seduced from the narrow path by the lusts of the eye and the pride of life. “Oh, is it not pitiful,” he cried, “in this short and perishing world, with the Pit yawning by the roadside and the fires of Hell banked beneath us — is it not pitiful and lamentable that the soul of man should have other thoughts than its hard-won salvation? What signify profane learning and the delights of the eye and the comforts of the body, and even good intents toward your fellows, if at the hinder end the Judge of all will ask but the one question — Have you your title in Christ?”

In especial, he dealt scornfully with the plea of charity. There could be no charity towards sin. The accursed thing must be destroyed wherever found, and were it the wife of a man’s bosom or the son of the same mother the sinner must be struck down.

The congregation listened as if under a spell. So intent were they that neither the people on their stools nor the Moderator in his chair nor the preacher in the pulpit noticed that in the dim back~end of the kirk the door had opened and some one had entered.

But it was in the close of his discourse that the gale came upon Mr. Proudfoot’s spirit. Now he was at his application. The history of Israel was searched to show how Jehovah the merciful was yet merciless towards error. Agag was hewn in pieces — the priests and worshippers of Baal were slain to a man — the groves were cut down and ploughed up and sown with salt. . . . So rapt were preacher and people that they did not observe that a new-comer was among them moving quietly up the kirk. . . . The minister of Bold concluded in a whirl of eloquence with his favourite instance of Barak the son of Abinoam — how with ten thousand men of Naphtali and Zebulun he went down from the mount Tabor and fell upon Sisera, the captain of the hosts of Canaan, so that not a man was left. He likened himself in all humility to Deborah the prophetess; he called upon the people of the Lord, even as she had called upon Barak, to rise and destroy the Canaanites without questioning and without respite. “Let us smite the chariots and the host with the edge of the sword, for in this day hath the Lord delivered Sisera into our hand, and let us pursue after the remnant even to Harosheth of the Gentiles!”

“Harosheth of your grannie!”

The minister’s voice had stopped, and, in the profound hush that followed, the four words fell with a startling clearness. The blasphemy of them was not decreased by the tone, which was of measureless contempt. The scared eyes of the people saw Mark Riddel, for whom soldiers were now beating the countryside, standing easy and arrogant before the pulpit, and those near him drew away their stools in panic. He had not the look of a hunted man, and though his presence had always won him respect in Woodilee he seemed now to have expanded into some one most formidable and unfamiliar. He wore the same clothes as he had worn in field and market, but he held himself very differently from the friendly crony who had sat in Lucky Weir’s. At his side, too, swung a long sword.

Mr. Proudfoot looked boldly down on him.

“Who are you that dares to cast scorn upon the Word?” he asked in a firm voice.

“Not on the Word,” was the answer, “but on the auld wives that pervert it. “He nodded over his shoulder. “They ken me fine in the parish. I was baptized after the Apostle, and for my surname ye can choose Kerr or Riddel as it pleases you.”

The Moderator sat with a flaming face. “It is Mark Kerr the malignant. I summon all law-abiding and Christian men to lay hands on him and convey him to a place of bondage.”

But no one stirred. The dark face with the laugh at the lips, the fierce contemptuous eyes, the figure compact and light with a strength which the toil-bent shoulders of Woodilee could never equal, the repute for magical skill — these were things terrible enough without the long sword.

Mr. Muirhead rose. “Then I and my brother will get us forth of this place. Come, Mr. Ebenezer,” and he gathered the skirts of his gown.

“Nay, friends,” said Mark, “ye’ll bide where ye are. And the folk will keep their seats, till I give them leave to skail [disperse].” He swung the key of the kirk door in his hand as he spoke. “Sit ye doun, Mr. Muirhead. Sit ye doun, worthy Mr. Proudfoot. You billies have the chance ilka Sabbath o’ sayin’ your say and no man can controvert you. This day for a change ye will have to hearken.”

In justice to the two ministers let it be said that it was not the sword that kept them in their places. Neither lacked courage. But this man who stood confronting them, the very sight of whom seemed to paralyse the folk of Woodilee, this shameless malignant had a compelling something in his air. He spoke as one having authority; though he used the broad country speech, he had that in his voice which, whether it spring from camp or court or college, means command. Very sensitive to this note in their disciplined Kirk, the two ministers listened.

What fell from Mark’s lips was discussed secretly for many a day in the countryside. Publicly it was rarely mentioned, for a more awful blasphemy, it seemed, was never spoken in the house of God. He told two pillars of the Kirk and a congregation of the devout that they had all failed utterly to interpret God’s Word; that they were Pharisees faithful to an ill-understood letter and heedless of the spirit; that they were fools bemused with Jewish rites which they did not comprehend and Jewish names which they could not properly pronounce. “It’s nothing but a bairn’s ploy,” he cried, “but it’s a cruel ploy, for it has spilt muckle good blood in Scotland. If ye take the blood-thirstiness, and the hewing in pieces, and thrawnness of the auld Jews, and ettle to shape yourselves on their pattern, what for do ye no gang further? Wherefore d’ye no set up an altar and burn a wedder on’t? What kind o’ kirk is this, when ye suld have a temple with gopher and shittim wood and shew-bread and an ark o’ the covenant and branched candlesticks, and busk your minister in an ephod instead of a black gown? Ye canna pick and choose in the Word. If one thing is to be zealously copied, wherefore not all? . . . Ye fatted calves! . . . Ye muckle weans, that play at being ancient Israelites!”

This was too much for Mr. Proudfoot.

“Silence, blasphemer,” he cried. “In the name of Him that snappeth the spear asunder I will outface you.” He stumbled down the pulpit stairs, and would no doubt have flung himself on Mark had not old Nance Kello who sat at the foot impeded him and given Mirehope time to catch his coat-skirts. He stopped, breathing heavily, about three yards from Mark, and, as he stood, it was not the sword that a second time deterred him. He felt dimly that this outlaw had come to wear a fearful authority. It was not the tacksman of Crossbasket that spoke, but the captain of Mackay’s — not the farmer of Jed Water, but the kinsman of Roxburghe and the brigadier of Montrose.

Mr. Proudfoot turned to his colleague and saw that the Moderator’s eye was puzzled and uncertain. He bethought him of his chief ally in the parish. “Where is Chasehope?” he cried. “Where is Ephraim Caird?”

The answer came from an unlooked-for quarter. Daft Gibbie sat crouched in a corner of the kirk, and those near him had marked his unwonted silence. He did not gabble as usual, but sat with his great head in his hands, murmuring softly and rolling his wild eyes. But at the mention of Chasehope he suddenly found voice.

“He’s up in the hills,” he cried. “I seen him at skreigh o’ day at the buchts o’ the Drygrain, and he was rivin’ a yowe and cryin’ that it was a hound o’ hell and that it suldna devour him. He was a’ lappered wi’ bluid, and when he seen me he ran on me, and his een were red and he slavered like a mad tyke, and his face was thrawed oot o’ the shape o’ man. Eh, sirs, puir Gibbie was near his end, for I couldna stir a foot, but afore he wan to me there cam’ anither sound, and as sure as death it was like a hound’s yawp. At that he gangs off like the wund, and the next I seen o’ him he was skelpin’ through the flowe moss, cryin’ like ane in torment, and I stottered hame to get Amos Ritchie to tak’ his flintlock and stop yon awfu’ skellochs. I’ll never sleep till I ken that the lost soul o’ him is free o’ the body.”

“Another has told my tale.” Mark spoke in a voice out of which all scorn had gone, a voice penetratingly quiet and solemn. “I, too, have seen him that once was Ephraim Caird, and I shudder at the swiftness of the judgment. There is no man or woman in Woodilee that does not ken that he was the leader of the coven that practised the devil’s arts in the Wood, but he had a name for godliness, and he had the measure of the blind fools that call themselves ministers of God. — Sit still, sir! I would be loth to draw on an unarmed man, but my sword ere this has punished vermin. . . . He has sworn falsely against the innocent, and yestreen at Kirk Aller he prevailed. But in the night the Lord sent forth His vengeance — ask me not how, for I do not know — and this day he is running demented on the hills, pursued by the dogs of his own terrors. Go and look for him. You will find him in a bog-hole or a pool in the burn. Bury his body decently, but bury it face downward, so that you speed him on his road.”

There was such a silence that the rasp of a stool on the earthen floor struck the hearers like a thunderclap. One voice — it was Amos Ritchie’s — came out of the back of the kirk.

“Where is the minister?” it asked.

“He is gone where you will never see him more,” said Mark. “A prophet came among you and you knew him not. For the sake of that witless thing that is now going four-foot among the braes you have condemned the innocent blood. He spent his strength for you and you rejected him, he yearned for you and you repelled him, he would have laid down his life for you and you scorned him. He is now beyond the reach of your ingratitude.”

“Unless he be dead,” said Mr. Proudfoot, “he is not beyond the reach of the law, and if he be dead he has fallen into the hands of a living and offended God.”

“Man, man,” said Mark gently, “you and your like have most lamentably confounded God and Devil.”

“And you yourself,” cried the Moderator, struggling valiantly to assert himself against an atmosphere which he felt inimical, “are within a span of the gallows.”

“We are all and at all times within a span of death. . . . To you, reverend sirs, I have no more to say. You will gang your own ways, and some day others will play the tyrant over you and give you your ain kail through the reek. In that day of humiliation you will repent of what you did in your pride. . . . To those who have been partakers of the iniquity of the Wood I wish no less than the fate that has overtaken their master. . . . To the poor folk of Woodilee I leave their minister’s blessing, and may they have whiles a kindly thought of one that loved them.”

He turned at the door. “You will bide here till you are released. The ministers can while away the time excommunicatin’ me. Guid day to you a’.”

Amos Ritchie and Reiverslaw slipped out after him, and the key was turned in the lock. Amos wept bitterly, and Reiverslaw’s dark face was working with suppressed tears.

“You have to live on in this parish,” Mark said. “I need not involve you in my own peril. Let the bodies out in half an hour. No one saw you enter, so you will get no discredit by this day’s work. Say you found the key by the roadside.”

Amos turned on him with a distraught eye.

“Where is Mr. David? What have ye done with him? . . . We ken nocht o’ you — ye come and gang like bog-fire — there’s some says ye’re the Deil himsel’. If ye’ve wiled a saunt doun the road to Hell —”

“Be comforted,” said Mark, laying a hand on Amos’s arm. “I think I have helped to open for him the gates of Paradise.”

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