Witch Wood, by John Buchan

Chapter 3

Guests in Calidon Tower

“Will you enter, sirs?” said the girl. She was clad in some dark homespun stuff with a bright-coloured screen thrown over her head and shoulders. She held the light well in front of her, so that David could not see her face. He would fain have taken his leave, for it seemed strange to be entering Calidon thus late at e’en in the company of strangers, but the hand of the groom on his arm restrained him. “You will drink a stirrup-cup, friend. The night is yet young and the moon is high.”

A steep stairway ran upward a yard or two from the doorway. Calidon was still a Border keep, where the ground-floor had once been used for byres and stables, and the inhabitants had dwelt in the upper stories. The girl moved ahead of them. “Will you be pleased to follow me, sirs? My uncle awaits you above.”

They found themselves in a huge chamber which filled the width of the tower, and, but for a passage and a further staircase, its length. A dozen candles, which seemed to have been lit in haste, showed that it was raftered with dark oak beams, and that the walls were naked stone where they were not covered with a coarse arras. The floor, of a great age, was bare wood blackened with time and use, and covered with a motley of sheepskins and deerskins. Two long oak tables and a great oak bench made the chief furniture, but there were a multitude of stools of the same heavy ancient make, and by a big open fireplace two ancient chairs of stamped Spanish leather. A handful of peats smouldered on the hearth, and the thin blue smoke curled upward to add grime to an immense coat of arms carved in stone and surmounted by a forest of deer horns and a trophy of targes and spears.

David, accustomed only to the low-ceiled rooms of the Edinburgh closes, stared in amazement at the size of the place and felt abashed. The Hawkshaws had made too great a sound in his boyhood’s world for him to enter their dwelling without a certain tremor of the blood. So absorbed was he in his surroundings that it was with a start that he saw the master of the house.

A man limped forward, gathered the leader of the party in his arms and kissed him on both cheeks.

“Will,” he said, “Will, my old comrade! It’s a kind wind that has blown you to Calidon this night. I havena clapped eyes on you these six year.”

The host was a man about middle life, with the shoulders of a bull and a massive shaggy head now in considerable disorder from the fact that a night-cap had just been removed from it. His clothes were of a comfortable undress, for the tags of his doublet and the points of his breeches were undone, and over all he wore an old plaid dressing-gown. He had been reading, for a pipe of tobacco marked his place in a folio, and David noted that it was Philemon Holland’s version of the Cyropædia. His eyes were blue and frosty, his cheeks ruddy, his beard an iron grey, and his voice as gusty as a hill wind. He limped heavily as he moved.

“Man, Will,” he cried, “it’s a whipping up of cripples when you and me forgather. The Germany wars have made lameters of the both of us. And who are the lads you’ve brought with you?”

“Just like myself, Nick, poor soldiers of Leven’s, on our way home to Angus.”

“Angus is it this time?” The host winked and then laughed boisterously.

“Angus it is, but their names and designations can wait till we have broken our fast. ‘Faith, we’ve as wolfish a hunger as ever you and me tholed in Thuringia. And I’ve brought in an honest man that guided us through your bogs and well deserves bite and sup.”

Nicholas Hawkshaw peered for a moment at David. “I cannot say I’m acquaint with the gentleman, but I’ve been that long away I’ve grown out of knowledge of my own countryside. But ye shallna lack for meat and drink, for when I got your token I bade Edom stir himself and make ready. There’s a good browst of yill, and plenty of French cordial and my father’s Canary sack. And there’s a mutton ham, and the best part of a pie — I wouldna say just what’s intil the pie, but at any rate there’s blackcocks and snipes and leverets, for I had the shooting of them. Oh, and there’s whatever more Edom can find in the house of Calidon. Here’s back your ring, Will. When I read the cognizance I had a notion that I was about to entertain greater folk —”

“Than your auld friend Will Rollo and two poor troopers of Leven’s. And yet we’re maybe angels unawares.” He took the ring and handed it to the groom, who with David stood a little back from the others, while Nicholas Hawkshaw’s eyes widened in a momentary surprise.

An ancient serving-man and a barefoot maid brought in the materials for supper, and the two troopers fell on the viands like famished crows. The groom ate little and drank less; though he was the slightest in build of the three travellers, he seemed the most hardened to the business. The lame man, who was called Will Rollo, was presently satisfied, and deep in reminiscences with his host, but the other required greater sustenance for his long wiry body, and soon reduced the pie to a fragment. He pressed morsels upon the groom — a wing of grouse, a giblet of hare — but the latter smiled and waved the food away. A friendly service, Leven’s, David thought, where a servant was thus tenderly considered.

“Yon were the brave days, when you and me served as ensigns of Meldrum’s in the Corpus Evangelicorum. And yon was the lad to follow, for there never was the marrow of the great Gustavus for putting smeddum into troops that had as many tongues and creeds as the Tower of Babel. But you and me were ower late on the scene. We never saw Breitenfeld — just the calamitous day of Lutzen, and the blacker day of Nordlingen, where Bernhard led us like sheep to the slaughter. That was the end of campaigning for you, Will. I mind leaving you on the ground for dead and kissing your cheek, the while I was near my own end with a musketoon ball in my ribs. Then I heard you were still in life and back in Scotland, but I was off with auld Wrangel to Pomerania, and had to keep my mind on my own affairs.”

So the talk went on, memories of leaguers and forced marches and pitched battles, punctuated with the names of Leslies and Hamiltons and Kerrs and Lumsdens and a hundred Scots mercenaries. —“I got my quietus a year syne serving with Torstensson and his Swedes — a pitiable small affair in Saxonia, where I had the misfortune to meet a round shot on the ricochet which cracked my shin-bone and has set me hirpling for the rest of my days. My Colonel was Sandy Leslie, a brother of Leslie of Balquhain, him that stuck Wallenstein at Eger, but a man of honester disposition and a good Protestant. He bade me go home, for I would never again be worth a soldier’s hire, and faith! when the chirurgeon had finished with my leg I was of the same opinion. — So home you find me, Will, roosting in the cauld rickle of stones that was my forbears’, while rumours of war blow like an east wind up the glens. I’m waiting for your news. I hear word that Davie Leslie . . . ”

“Our news can wait, Nick. We’ve a gentleman here to whose ears this babble of war must sound outlandish.” It seemed to David that some secret intelligence passed between the two, and that a foot of one was pressed heavily on the other’s toes.

“I am a man of peace,” David said, for the talk had stirred his fancy, “but I too have word of a glorious victory in England won by the Covenant armies. If you have come straight from the south you can maybe tell me more.”

“There was a victory beyond doubt,” said the tall man with the squint, “and that is why we of Leven’s are permitted to go home. We have gotten our pay, whilk is an uncommon happening for the poor soldier in this land.”

“I have heard,” said David, “that the ranks of the Army of the Covenant fought for higher matters than filthy lucre.”

“For what, belike?”

“For the purity of their faith and the Crown honours of Christ.”

The other whistled gently through his teeth.

“No doubt. No doubt. There’s a braw sough of the Gospel in Leven’s ranks. But we must consider the loaves and fishes, good sir, as well as the preaching of the Word. Man canna live by bread alone, but he assuredly canna live without it, and to fill his belly he wants more than preaching. Lucre’s none so filthy if it be honestly earned, and goes to keep a roof over the wife and bairns. I have served in many lands with a kennin’ o’ queer folk, and, believe me, sir, the first thing a soldier thinks of is just his pay.”

“But he cannot fight unless he has a cause to fight for.”

“He’ll make a very good shape at it if he has been learned his business by a heavy-handed sergeant. I have seen the riddlings of Europe stick fast as rocks before Wallenstein’s horse, because they had been taught their trade and feared death less than their Colonel’s tongue. And I have seen the flower of gentrice, proud as Lucifer and gallant as lions, and every one with a noble word on his lips, break like rotten twigs at the first musket volley. It’s discipline that’s the last word in war.”

“But if the discipline be there, will not a conviction of the right of his cause make a better soldier?”

“You have spoken a true word, and there’s a man in England this day that knows it. That is what Cromwell has done. He has built up a body of horse that stand like an iron wall and move like a river in spate. They have the discipline of Gustavus’s Swedes, and the fires of Hell in their hearts. I tell you, there is nothing in this land that can stand against them.”

“I have no love for sectaries,” said David. “But cannot our Scots do likewise, with the Covenant to nerve them?”

The other shrugged his shoulders.

“The Covenant’s but sour kail to the soldier. Davie Leslie has hammered his men into a wise-like army, because he learned his trade from Gustavus. But think you our bannock-fed foot-sentinels care a doit for the black gowns at Westminster? A man will fight for his King and for his country, and for liberty to worship God in his own way. But, unless he has a crack in his head, he will not fight for a fine point of Church government.”

David was becoming ill at ease. He felt that it was his duty to testify, or otherwise he would be guilty of the sin of Meroz, the sin of apathy when his faith was challenged. But he was far from clear as to the exact nature of his faith. There was no blasphemy in questioning whether the Covenant were truly in the hearts of the people. Had not the minister of Cauldshaw that very afternoon expressed the same doubt?

Nicholas Hawkshaw was peering at him intently.

“I should ken you, friend, for they tell me you belong to this countryside. And your face sticks in my memory, but I canna put a name to it.”

“They call me David Sempill. I am the new-ordained minister of Woodilee.”

Nicholas cried out. “Auld Wat o’ the Roodfoot’s grandson. I heard of your coming, sir, and indeed I’m your chief heritor. I’ll nave your hand on that. Man, I kenned your gudesire well, and many a pouchful of groats I had from him when I was a laddie. You’re back among kenned folk, Mr. Sempill, and I wish you a long life in Woodilee.”

The troopers did not seem to share their host’s geniality. Quick glances passed between them, and the tall man shifted his seat so that he came between David and the groom. This latter had taken no part in the conversation, indeed he had not spoken a word, but after his meal was finished had sat with his head on his breast as if sunk in meditation. Now he raised his eyes to David, and it was he who spoke.

“I am not less loyal to the Kirk of Scotland than you, Mr. Sempill. You are a placed minister, and I am a humble elder of that Kirk.”

“In what parish?” David asked eagerly.

“In my native parish benorth of Forth.”

The man’s dress and station were forgotten by David when he looked at his face. Now that he saw clearly in the candle-light, it was not the face of a common groom. Every feature spoke of race, the firm mouth of command, the brooding grey eyes of thought. The voice was sweet and musical, and the man’s whole air had a gentle but imperious courtesy.

The movement of the tall trooper, while it had separated David from the groom, had brought the latter full into the view of Nicholas Hawkshaw. Then a strange thing happened. The host, after a long stare, during which amazement and recognition woke in his eyes, half rose from his seat and seemed on the verge of speaking. His gaze was fixed on the groom, and David read in it something at once deferential and exulting. Then the toe of the lame man’s boot came down on his shin, and the lame man’s hand was laid on his arm. The lame man, too, said something in a tongue which David could not understand. Nicholas subsided in his chair, but his face remained both puzzled and excited.

The groom spoke again.

“You are a scholar, and you are young, and you are full of the ardour of your calling. This parish is fortunate in its minister, and I would that all Scotland were as happily served. What is it that you and I seek alike? A pure doctrine and a liberated Kirk? Is there no more?”

“I seek above all things to bring men and women to God’s mercy~seat.”

“And I say Amen. That is more than any disputation about the forms of Presbytery. But you seek also, or I am mightily mistook in you, the freedom and well-being of this land of ours — that our Israel may have peace and prosperity in her borders.”

“If the first be won, all the rest will be added unto us.”

“Doubtless. But only if the first be truly won — if the Kirk attend to the work of salvation and does not expend her toil in barren fields. Her sovereign must be King Jesus. Take heed that instead it be not King Covenant.”

The words recalled to David Mr. Fordyce’s doubts, which had been so scornfully repelled by the ministers of Kirk Aller and Bold.

“Does it lie in the mouth of a minister or an elder of the Kirk to cavil at the Kirk’s doings?” he asked, but without conviction in his tone.

The other smiled. “You give due loyalty, as the Scripture enjoins, to the King, Mr. Sempill?”

“I am faithful to his Majesty so long as his Majesty is faithful to law and religion.”

“Even so. It is my own creed. The King must respect the limits of his prerogative — it is the condition on which he rules in a free land. My loyalty to the Kirk is in the same case. I am loyal when she fulfils those duties which God has laid upon her — that duty, above all, of bringing mortal men to God. If she forget those duties, and meddle arrogantly with civil matters that do not concern her, then I take leave to oppose her, as in a like case I would oppose his Majesty. For by such perversities both King and Kirk become tyrants, and tyranny is not to be endured by men who are called into the liberty of Christ.”

“Or by Scots,” added the tall trooper.

“I have no clearness on the point,” said David after a pause. “I have not thought deeply on these matters, for I am but new to the ministry, and my youth was filled with profane study.”

“Nevertheless, such study is a good foundation for a wise theology. I judge that you are a ripe Latinist — maybe also a Grecian. You have read your Aristotle? You are familiar with the history of the ancient world, which illumines all later ages? I would point my arguments from that armoury.”

“I cannot grant that the doings of ancient heathendom give any rule for a Christian state.”

“But, sir, the business of government is always the same. We have our Lord’s warning that there are the things of Cæsar and the things of God. The Roman was the great master of the arts of government, and he did not seek throughout his empire to make a single religion. He was content to give it the peace of his law, and let each people go its own way in matters of worship. It was in that tolerant world which he created that our Christian faith found its opportunity.”

“Doubtless God so moved the Roman mind for His own purpose. But I join issue on your application. The Church of Christ is now in being, and the faith of Christ is the foundation of a Christian state. Civil law is an offence against God unless it be also Christian.”

The young man smiled. “I do not deny it. This realm of ours is professedly a Christian realm — I would it were more truly so. But that does not exempt it from obedience to those laws of government without which no realm, Christian or pagan, may endure. If a man is so ill a smith that he cannot shoe my horse, I will be none the better served because he is a good Christian. If a land be ill governed, the disaster will be not the less great because the governors are men of God. If his Majesty — to take a pertinent example — override the law to the people’s detriment, that tyranny will be not the less grievous because his Majesty believes in his heart that he is performing a duty towards the Almighty. Honest intention will not cure faulty practice, and the fool is the fool whether he be unbeliever or professor.”

David shook his head. “Where does your argument tend? I fear to schism.”

“Not so. I am an orthodox son of the Kirk, a loyal servant of his Majesty, and a passionate Scot. Here, my friend, is my simple confession. There is but one master in the land, and its name is Law — which is in itself a creation of a free people under the inspiration of the Almighty. That law may be changed by the people’s will, but till it be so changed it is to be revered and obeyed. It has ordained the King’s prerogative, the rights of the subject, and the rights and duties of the Kirk. The state is like the body, whose health is only to be maintained by a just proportion among its members. If a man’s belly be his god, his limbs will suffer; if he use only his legs, his arms will dwindle. If, therefore, the King should intrude upon the subject’s rights, or the subject whittle at the King’s prerogative, or the Kirk set herself above the Crown, there will be a sick state and an ailing people.”

Nicholas Hawkshaw had been listening intently with a puzzled air, his eyes fixed on the groom’s face, but the two troopers seemed ill at ease.

“Man, James,” said the tall man, “you’ve mistook your calling. You should have been a regent in the college of St. Andrews, and hammered sense into the thick heads of the bejaunts.”

Rollo, the lame man, shifted his seat and seemed inclined to turn the conversation.

“Patience, Mark,” said the groom. “It’s not often a poor soldier of Leven’s gets a chance of a crack with a like-minded friend. For I’m certain that Mr. Sempill is very near my way of thinking.”

“I do not quarrel with your premises,” said David, “but I’m not clear about the conclusion.”

“It’s writ large in this land to-day. There are those that would make the King a puppet and put all authority in parliaments, and there are those who would make the Kirk like Calvin’s at Geneva, a ruler over both civil and religious matters. I say that both ways lie madness and grief. If you upset the just proportion of the law you will gain not liberty but confusion. You are a scholar, Mr. Sempill, and have read the histories of Thucydides? Let me counsel you to read them again and consider the moral.”

“What side are you on?” David asked abruptly.

“I am on the side of the free people of Scotland. And you by your vows are on the same side, for your concern is to feed the flock of God which is among us. Think you, sir, if you depress the balance against the King, that thereby you will win more for the people? Nay, nay, what is lost to the prerogative will go, not to the people, but to those who prey on them. You will have that anarchy which gives his chance to the spoiler, and out of anarchy will come some day a man of violence who will tyrannically make order again. It is the way of the world, my friend.”

“Are you for the Covenant?”

At the question the others started. “Enough of politics,” cried Rollo. “These are no matters to debate among weary folk.” But the groom raised his hand, and they were silent.

“I am for the Covenant. Six years back I drew sword for it, and I did not sheathe that sword till we had established the liberties of this land. That was indeed a Covenant of Grace.”

“There is another and a later. What say you of that?”

“I say of that other that it is a Covenant of Works in which I have no part, nor any true lover of the Kirk. It is a stepping of the Kirk beyond the bounds prescribed by the law of God and the law of man, and it will mean a weakening of the Kirk in its proper duties. And that I need not tell you, as a minister of Christ, will be the starvation and oppression of Christ’s simple folk. Quicquid delirant reges, plectuntur Achivi. Is it not more pleasing to God that His ministers should comfort the sick and the widow and the fatherless, and guide souls to Heaven, than that they should scrabble for civil pre-eminence?”

Into David’s mind came two visions — that of the complacent ministers of Kirk Aller and Bold as they had discoursed at meat, and that of the old herd at the Greenshiel, sitting by his dead wife. The pictures belonged to different worlds, and at the moment he felt that these worlds were eternally apart. He had the disquieting thought that the one had only the husks of faith, and the other the grain. Dimly he heard the voice of the groom. “I will give you a text, Mr. Sempill. ‘The vineyard of the Lord of hosts is the house of Israel, and the men of Judah His pleasant plant; and He looked for judgment, but behold oppression; for righteousness, but behold a cry.’”

He scarcely realized that the others had sprung to their feet, and it was only when Nicholas Hawkshaw exclaimed that he turned his head.

A girl stood before them, the girl who had opened the door, but whose face he had scarcely seen at the time in the poor light.

“Katrine, my dear, you’ve been long of coming.” It was Nicholas who spoke. “I thought you had slipped off to your bed. This is my sister’s child, sirs, who keeps me company in this auld barrack — Robert Yester’s daughter, him that fell with Monro in the year ‘thirty-four. You see three gentlemen-troopers of Leven’s, my dear, and Mr. Sempill, the new minister of Woodilee.”

The girl was dressed in a gown of blue velvet, the skirts of which were drawn back in front to show an embroidered petticoat of stiff yellow satin. It was cut low at the neck and shoulders, and round the top ran a broad edging of fine lace. Her dark hair was caught up in a knot behind, but allowed to fall in curls on each side of her face. That face, to David’s startled eyes, was like none that he had ever seen before, certainly like none of the Edinburgh burgher girls whom he had observed in their finery on the Saturday causeway. It was small and delicately featured, the cheeks flushed with youth and health, the eyes dark, brilliant, and mirthful. At another time he would have been shocked at her dress, for the fashion of a low bodice had not spread much beyond the Court, but now he did not take note of what she wore. He was gazing moonstruck upon a revelation.

She smiled on him — she smiled on them all. She curtsied lightly to her uncle, to Rollo, and to the dark man. But she did not curtsy to the minister. For suddenly, as she looked at the groom, her composure deserted her. Her mouth moved as if she would have spoken, and then she checked herself, for David saw that the groom had put his finger to his lips. Instead she curtsied almost to the ground, a reverence far more deep than she had accorded to the others, and when he gave her his hand she bent her head as if her impulse was to kiss it.

All this David saw with a confused vision. He had scarcely spoken ten words in his life to a woman outside his own kin, and this bright apparition loosened his knees with nervousness. He stammered his farewells. He had already outstayed the bounds of decency, and he had a long ride home — he wished his friends a safe conclusion to their journey — in the course of his pastoral visitations he would have the chance of coming again to Calidon. “‘Deed, sir, and you’ll make sure of that,” said the hospitable Nicholas. “There’s aye a bite and a sup at Calidon for the minister of Woodilee.”

He bowed to the girl, and she looked at him for the first time, a quizzical appraising look, and gave him a fleeting smile. Five minutes later he was on his horse and fording Rood.

He took the long road by the back of the Hill of Deer, riding in bright moonshine up the benty slopes and past the hazel thickets. His mind was in a noble confusion, for on this, his first day in his parish, experiences had thronged on him too thick and fast. Out of the welter two faces stood clear, the groom’s and the girl’s. . . . He remembered the talk, and his conscience pricked him. Had he been faithful to his vows? Had he been guilty of the sin of Meroz? Had he listened to railing accusations and been silent? . . . He did not know — in truth he did not care — for the sum of his recollection was not of an argument but of a person. The face of the young man had been more than his words, for it had been the face of a comrade, and an intimate friendliness had looked out of his eyes. He longed to see him again, to be with him, to follow him, to serve him — but he did not know his name, and they would doubtless never meet again. David was very young, and could have wept at the thought.

And the girl . . .? The sight of her had been the coping-stone to a night of marvels. She was not like the groom — he had been glad to flee from her company, for she had no part in his world. But a marvel beyond doubt! The recollection of her made him a poet, and as he picked his way over the hill he was quoting to himself the lines in Homer where the old men of Troy see Helen approaching, and wonder at her beauty. . . . [Greek text]— how did it go? “Small wonder that the Trojans and the mailed Greeks should endure pain through many years for such a woman. In face she is strangely like to some immortal.”

And then he felt compunction, for he remembered the worn face of the dead woman at the Greenshiel.

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