Witch Wood, by John Buchan

Chapter 4

The Faithful Servant

For two days the minister of Woodilee was a man unbalanced and distraught. He sat at his books without concentration, and he wandered on the hills without delight, while Isobel’s face puckered in dismay as she removed his scarcely tasted meals. It was hot thundery weather, with storms that never broke in rain grumbling among the glens, and to this she set down his indisposition to eat. But David’s trouble was not of the body. He had thought himself the mailed servant of God, single in purpose, armed securely against the world, and lo! in a single night he had been the sport of profane fancies and had rejoiced in vanities.

The girl he scarcely thought of — she had scared rather than enthralled him. But the Wood of Melanudrigill lay heavy on his conscience. Where was his Christian fortitude if a black forest at night could set him shivering like a lost child? David had all his life kept a tight hand on his courage; if he dreaded a thing, that was good reason why he should go out of his road to face it. His instinct was to return alone to Melanudrigill in the dark, penetrate its deepest recesses, and give the lie to its enchantments. . . . But a notion which he could not combat restrained him. That was what the Wood wanted, to draw him back to it through curiosity or fear. If he yielded to his impulse he would be acknowledging its power. It was the part of a minister of God to deny at the outset that the place was more than a common wilderness of rock and tree, to curb his fancies as things too vain for a grown man’s idlest thought.

On this point he fixed his resolution and found some comfort. But the memory of Calidon and the troopers and the groom’s words remained to trouble him. Had he not borne himself in their company as a Laodicean, assenting when he should have testified? . . . He went over every detail of the talk, for it stuck firmly in his mind. They had decried the Solemn League and Covenant in the name of the Kirk, and he had not denounced them. . . . And yet they had spoken as Christian men and loyal sons of that Kirk. . . . What meant, too, the groom’s disquisition on law and government? David found the argument hard to gainsay — it presented a doctrine of the state which commended itself to his reason. Yet it was in flat contradiction of the declared view of that Kirk which he was sworn to serve, and what then became of his ordination vows? . . . But was it contrary to the teaching of the Word and the spirit of his faith? He searched his mind on this point and found that he had no clearness.

His duty, it seemed, was to go to some father-in-God, like the minister of Kirk Aller, and lay his doubts before him. But he found that course impossible. The pale fleshy face of Mr. Muirhead rose before him, as light-giving as a peat-stack; he heard his complacent tones, saw the bland conceit in his ruminant eyes. Nor would he fare better with the militancy of his brother of Bold, who classed all mankind as Amalekites, save the chosen few who wore his own phylacteries. Mr. Fordyce might give him comfort, and he was on the point many times of saddling his horse and riding to the manse of Cauldshaw. . . . But each time he found it impossible, and when he asked himself the cause he was amazed at the answer. Loyalty forbade him — loyalty to the young man, habited as a groom, who had spoken both as counsellor and comrade. That was the enduring spell of that strange night. David as a youth in Edinburgh had had few familiar friends, and none that could be called intimate. For the first time he had met one from whom had gone forth an influence that melted his heart. He recalled with a kind of aching affection the gentle, commanding courtesy, the winning smile, the masterful and yet wistful grey eyes. “I wonder,” he thought, “if I was not meant to be a soldier. For I could follow yon man most joyfully to the cannon’s mouth.”

On the third day peace returned to him, when he buried Marion of the Greenshiel. The parish coffin was not used, as was the custom for poor folk, since the farmer of Reiverslaw, Richie’s master, paid the cost of a private one, and himself attended the “chesting” the night before. On the day David walked the seven miles to the cottage, where Richie had set out a poor entertainment of ale and oatcakes for the mourners. It was not the fashion for the minister to pray at the house or at the grave, as savouring of Popish prayers for the dead, nor was it the custom for a widower to attend the funeral; but David took his own way, and prayed with the husband, the wailing women, and the half-dozen shepherds who had assembled for the last rites. The light coffin was carried by four young men, and David walked with them all the way to Woodilee. The farmer of Reiverslaw joined them at a turn of the road — his name was Andrew Shillinglaw, a morose, dark man not over-well spoken of in the parish — and he and the minister finished the journey side by side. The bellman, Nehemiah Robb, who was also the gravedigger and the beadle, met them at the entrance to the kirkton, and with him a crowd of villagers. Preceded by the jangling of Robb’s bell, the procession reached the shallow grave, the women remaining at the kirkyard gate. The coffin was lowered, the earth shovelled down, and the thing in five minutes was over. There was no “dredgy” [funeral feast] at the poor house of the Greenshiel to draw the mourners back upon the seven moorland miles. The men adjourned to Lucky Weir’s, the kirk bell was restored to its tree, a woman or two sobbed, and the last of Marion Smail was a thin stream of figures vanishing in the haze of evening, one repeating to the other in funereal voices that “puir Mirren had got weel awa’.”

Yet the occasion, austere and bare as poverty could make it, woke in David a mood of tenderness and peace. The lowering clouds had gone from the sky, all morning it had rained, and the afternoon had had a soft autumn freshness. He had prayed with Richie, but his prayers had been also for himself, and as he walked behind the coffin on the path by the back of the Hill of Deer his petition seemed to have been answered. He had an assurance of his vocation. The crowd at the kirkyard, those toil-worn folk whose immortal souls had been given into his charge, moved him to a strange exultation. He saw his duty cleared from all doubts, and there must have been that in his face which told of his thoughts, for men greeted him and then passed on, as if unwilling to break in on his preoccupation. Only Reiverslaw, who was on his way to Lucky Weir’s, whence he would depart drunk in the small hours, was obtuse in his perceptions. He took the minister’s hand and shook it as he would a drover’s at a fair, seemed anxious to speak, found no words, and left with a grunted farewell.

It was a fine, long-drawn-out back-end, the best that had been known for twenty years. All September the sun shone like June, and it was well into October before the morning frosts began, and the third week of November before the snow came. The little crops — chiefly grey oats and barley, with an occasional rig of peas and flax — were well ripened and quickly reaped. The nettie-wives were busy all day in the fields, and the barefoot children made the leading in of the harvest a holiday, with straw whistles in their mouths and fantastic straw badges on their clothing. Then came the threshing with jointed flails, and the winnowing on barn roofs when the first east winds blew. There were no gleaners in the empty stubbles, for it was held a pious duty to leave something behind for the fowls of the air. Presently the scanty fruits of the earth were under cover, the bog hay in dwarfish ricks, the unthreshed oats and bear in the barns, the grain in the girnels, and soon the wheel of the Woodilee mill was clacking merrily to grind the winter’s meal. In that parish the burden of the laird lay light. Nicholas Hawkshaw asked no more than his modest rental in kind, and did not exact his due in labour, but for a week the road by the back of the Hill of Deer saw a procession of horses carrying the “kain” meal to the Calidon granary. As the minister watched the sight one day, Ephraim Caird, the Chasehope tenant, stood beside him, looking gloomily at his own beasts returning. “That’s the way our puir crops are guided,” he said. “As the auld folk used to say, ‘Ane part to saw, ane part to gnaw, and ane to pay the laird witha’.’” His eyes showed that he had no love for Calidon.

Hallowmass that year was a cheerful season. The elders shook their heads at the Hallowe’en junketings, and the severe Chasehope was strong in his condemnation. But on the night of Hallowe’en, as David walked in the bright moonlight and saw the lights in the cottages and heard laughter and a jigging of fiddles, he did not find it in his heart to condemn the ancient fashions. Nor apparently did Chasehope himself, for David was much mistaken if it was not Ephraim’s great shoulders and fiery head that he saw among the cabbage-stalks in Nance Kello’s garden. He had been to Hallowe’en frolics himself in past days when he stayed with his cousin at Newbiggin, but it seemed to him that here in Woodilee there was something oppressed and furtive in the merriment. There was a secrecy about each lit dwelling, and no sign of young lads and lasses laughing on the roads. He noticed, too, that for the next few days many of the people had a look of profound weariness — pale faces, tired eyes, stealthy glances — as if behind the apparent decorum there had been revels that exhausted soul and body.

With the reaping of the harvest the ill-conditioned cattle were brought from the hills to the stubbles, and soon turned both outfield and infield into a miry wilderness. David, whose knowledge of farming was derived chiefly from the Georgics, had yet an eye in his head and a store of common sense, and he puzzled at the methods. The land at its best was ill-drained, and the trampling of beasts made a thousand hollows which would be puddles at the first rains and would further sour the rank soil. But when he spoke on the matter to the farmer of Mirehope, he was answered scornfully that that had been the “auld way of the land,” and that those who were proud in their own conceit and had tried new-fangled methods — he had heard word of such in the West country — could not get two bolls from an acre where he had four. “And Mirehope’s but wersh [sour] land, sir, and not to be named wi’ the Clyde howms.”

When the November snows came all live stock was gathered into the farm-towns. The cattle were penned in yards with thatched shelters, and soon turned them into seas of mud. The milking cows were in the byre; the sheep in paddocks near-by: the draught-oxen and the horses in miserable stables of mud and heather. It was the beginning of the winter hibernation, and the chief work of the farms was the feeding of the stock on their scanty winter rations. The hay — coarse bog grasses with little nutriment in them — went mainly to the sheep; horses and cattle had for fodder straw and messes of boiled chaff; while Crummie in the byre was sometimes regaled with the débris of the kailyard and the oddments left from the family meals. Winter each year was both for beast and man a struggle with famine, and each was rationed like the people of a besieged city. But if food was scarce at the best, Woodilee did not want for fuel. It had been a good year for peats, for they had ripened well on the hills, and the open autumn had made them easy to carry. Each cottage had its ample peat-stack, and when harvest was over there had been also a great gathering of windfalls from the woods, so that by every door stood a pile of kindlings.

Melanudrigill in the bright October days had lost its menace for David. He had no occasion to visit it by night, but more than once he rode through it by day on his pastoral visitations to Fennan or the Rood valley, and once in a flaming sunset he returned that way from Kirk Aller. The bracken was golden in decay, and the yellowing birches, the russet thorns, and the occasional scarlet of rowans made the sombre place almost cheerful. In his walks on the hill the great forest below him seemed to have grown thin and open, no longer a vast enveloping cloak, but a kindly covering for the ribs of earth. Some potency had gone from it with the summer, as if the tides of a fierce life had sunk back into the ground again. He had seen deer in the glades, and they looked innocent things. . . . But he noticed as curious that none of the villagers in their quest for wood penetrated far into it, and that on its fringes they only gathered the windfalls. Up at the back of the Hill of Deer and in the Rood glen men were busy all day cutting birch and hazel billets, but no axe was laid to any tree in the Black Wood.

A week before Yule came the great snow. It began with a thin cold fog which muffled every fold of the hills. “Rouk’s [fog] snaw’s wraith,” said the parish, and saw to its fuel-stacks and looked gloomily at its shivering beasts. The thick weather lasted for three days and three nights, weather so cold that it was pain to draw breath, and old folk at night in their box beds could not get warmth, and the Woodilee burn was frozen hard even in the linns. It was noted as a bad omen that deer from Melanudrigill were seen in the kirkton, and that at dawn when the Mirehope shepherd went out to his sheep he found half-frozen blue hares crouching among the flocks. On the fourth morning the snow began, and fell for three days in heavy flakes, so that it lay feet deep on the roads and fields. Then the wind rose and for six furious hours a blizzard raged, so that the day was like night, and few dared stir from their doors. David, setting out to visit Amos Ritchie’s wife, who was sick of a congestion, took two hours over a quarter of mile of road, wandering through many kitchen middens, and had to postpone his return till the wind abated in the evening, while Isobel in the manse was demented with anxiety. The consequence was that the snow was swept bare from the knowes, but piled into twelve-foot drifts in the hollows. It was an ill time for the sheep in the paddocks, which were often one giant drift, where the presence of the flock could only be detected by the yellowish steaming snow. Chasehope lost a score of ewes, Mirehope half as many, and Nether Fennan, where the drifts were deep, the best part of his flock. To David it seemed that the farmers’ ways were a tempting of Providence. Had the sheep been left on the hill they would have crowded in the snow to the bare places; here in the confined paddocks they were caught in a trap. Moreover, on the hill in open winter weather there was a better living to be picked up than that afforded by the narrow rations of sour bog hay. But when he spoke thus his hearers plainly thought him mad. Sheep would never face a winter on the hills — besides, the present practice was the “auld way.”

The snow lay till the New Year was a week old, and when the thaw came and the roads ran in icy streams, David took to his bed for two days in utter exhaustion. All through the storm he had been on his legs, for there were sick folk and old folk in Woodilee who would perish miserably if left alone. The farm-towns could look after themselves, but in the scattered cottages of the kirkton there was no one to take command, and neighbourliness languished when each household was preoccupied with its own cares. Peter Pennecuik, a ruling elder, whose gift of prayer had been commended by Mr. Muirhead, had lost a tup and had his byre roof crushed in by the drift, so he became a fatalist, holding that the Lord had prepared a visitation which it would be impiety to resist, and sat lugubriously by his fireside. David’s fingers itched for his ears. From Amos Ritchie the blacksmith he got better assistance. Amos was a shaggy, black-bearded man of thirty-five, a great fiddler and a mighty putter of the stone, whose godliness might have been suspect but for his behaviour in the Bishops’ War. His wife was at death’s door all through the storm, but he nevertheless constituted himself the minister’s first lieutenant, and wrought valiantly in the work of relief. There were old women too chilled and frail to kindle their fires in the morning and melt snow for water; there were households so ill provided that they existed largely on borrowed food; there were cots where the weather had broken roof or wall. Isobel in the manse kitchen was a busy woman, and her girdle was never off the fire. David had looked forward to the winter snows as a season of peace, when he could sit indoors with his books; instead he found himself on his feet for fourteen hours out of the twenty-four, his hands and face chapped like a ploughman’s, and so weary at night that he fell off his chair with sleep while Isobel fetched his supper.

Yet it was the storm which was David’s true ordination to his duties, for it brought him close to his people, not in high sacramental things like death, but in their daily wrestling for life. He might visit their houses and catechize their families, but these were formal occasions, with all on their best behaviour, whereas in the intimate business of charity he saw them as they were.

The new minister was young and he was ardent, and his duties were still an adventure. His Sabbath sermons were diligently meditated. For his morning lecture he took the book of the prophet Amos, which, as the work of a herdsman, seemed fitting for a country parish. His two weekly discourses dealt laboriously with the fourfold state of man — his early state of innocence, his condition after the Fall, his state under grace, his condition in eternity. That winter David did not get beyond the state of innocence, and in discoursing on it he exhausted his ingenuity in piecing texts together from the Scriptures, and in such illustrations as he believed would awaken his hearers’ minds. Profane learning openly used would have been resented, but he contrived to bring in much that did not belong to the divinity schools, and he escaped criticism, it may be, because his Kirk Session did not understand him. His elders were noted theologians, and what was strange to them, if it was weightily phrased, they took for theological profundity.

At ten o’clock each Sabbath morning Robb the beadle tinkled the first bell; at the second the congregation moved into the kirk, and Peter Pennecuik, who acted as precentor, led the opening psalm, reading each line before it was sung. When Robb jerked the third bell, David entered the pulpit and began with prayer. At one o’clock the people dispersed, those who came from a distance to Lucky Weir’s ale-house; and at two fell the second service, which concluded at four with the coming of the dark. The kirk, with its earthen floor, was cold as a charnel-house, and the dimness of the light tried even David’s young eyes. The people sat shivering on their little stools, each with the frozen decorum and strained attention which was their Sabbath ritual. To the minister it seemed often as if he were speaking to sheeted tombstones, he felt as if his hearers were at an infinite distance from him, and only on rare occasions, when some shining text of Scripture moved his soul and he spoke simply and with emotion, did he feel any contact with his flock.

But his sermons were approved. Peter Pennecuik gave it as his verdict that he was a “deep” preacher and sound in the fundamentals. Others, remembering the thrill that sometimes came into his voice, called him an “affectionate” preacher, and credited him with “unction.” But there were many that longed for stronger fare, something more marrowy and awful, pictures of the hell of torment which awaited those who were not of the Elect. He had the “sough,” no doubt, but it was a gentle west wind, and not the stern Euroclydon which should call sinners to repentance. Their minister was a man of God, but he was young; years might add weight to him and give him the thunders of Sinai.

To David the Sabbath services were the least of his duties. He had come to Woodilee with his heart full of the mighty books which he would write in the solitude of his upper chamber. The chief was that work on the prophet Isaiah which should be for all time a repository of sacred learning, so that Sempill on Isaiah would be quoted reverently, like Luther on the Galatians or Calvin on the Romans. In the autumn evenings he had sketched the lines of his masterpiece, and before the great snow he had embarked on its prolegomena. But the storm made a breach in his studies. He felt himself called to more urgent duties, for he was a pastor of souls before he was a scholar. His visitations and catechizings among his flock were his chief care, and he began to win a name for diligence. On nights when even a shepherd would have kept the ingle side, David would arrive at a moorland cottage, and many a time Isobel had to welcome in the small hours a dripping or frozen master, thaw him by her kitchen fire, and feed him with hot ale and bannocks, while he recounted his adventures. He was strong and buoyant, and he loved the life, which seemed to him to have the discipline of a soldier. His face high-coloured by weather, his cheerful eyes, and his boyish voice and laugh were soon popular in the length of the parish. “He is a couthy lad,” said the old wives, “and for a man o’ God he’s terrible like a plain body.”

Also he took charge of the children. In Woodilee there was no school or schoolmaster. There were three hundred communicants, but it was doubtful if more than a dozen could read a sentence or write their names. In the Kirk Session itself there were only three. So David started a school, which met thrice a week of a morning in the manse kitchen. He sent to Edinburgh for horn-books, and with them and his big Bible taught his class their rudiments. These were the pleasantest hours of the day for master and children, and weekly the gathering grew till there was not a child in the kirkton or in the farm-towns of Mirehope and Chasehope that would have missed them. When they arrived, blue with cold and often breakfastless, Isobel would give each a bowl of broth, and while the lesson proceeded she would mend their ragged garments. Indeed more than one child emerged new clad, for the minister’s second-best cloak and an old pair of breeches were cut up by Isobel — expostulating but not ill-pleased — for tattered little mortals.

David was more than a private almoner. He and his Session had the Poor Box to administer, the sole public means of relieving the parish’s needs. Woodilee was better off than many places, in that it possessed a mortification of a thousand pounds Scots, bequeathed fifty years earlier by a certain Grizel Hawkshaw for the comfort of the poor. Also there was the weekly collection at the kirk services, where placks and doits and bodles, and a variety of debased coins, clinked in the plate at the kirk door, and there were the fines levied by the Session on evil-doers. In the winter the task of almoner was easier, for there were few beggars on the roads, and those that crossed the hills came as a rule only to die, when the single expense was the use of the parish coffin. Yet the administration of the scanty funds was a difficult business, and it led to David’s first controversies with his Session. Each elder had his own favourites among the poor, and Chasehope and Mirehope and Nether Fennan wrangled over every grant. The minister, still new to the place, for the most part held his peace, but now and then, in cases which he knew of, he asserted his authority. There was a woman, none too well reputed, who lived at Chasehope-foot, with a buxom black-eyed daughter, and whose house, though lamentably dirty and ill guided, seemed to lack nothing. When he opposed Chasehope’s demand that she should receive a benefaction as a lone widow, he had a revelation of Chasehope’s temper. The white face crimsoned, and the greenish eyes looked for a moment as ugly as a snarling dog’s. “Worthy Mr. Macmichael . . . ” he began, but David cut him short. “These moneys are for the relief of the helpless poor,” he said, “and they are scant enough at the best. I should think shame to waste a bodle except on a pitiful necessity. To him or her that hath shall not be given, while I am the minister of this parish.” Chasehope said nothing, and presently he mastered his annoyance, but the farmer of Mirehope — Alexander Sprot was his name — muttered something in an undertone to his neighbour, and there was tension in the air till the laugh of the Woodilee miller broke it. This man, one Spotswood, reckoned the richest in the parish and the closest, had a jolly laugh which belied his reputation. “Mr. Sempill’s in the right, Chasehope,” he cried. “Jean o’ the Chasehope-fit can manage fine wi’ what her gudeman left her. We daurna be lovish wi’ ither folks’ siller.” “I am overruled,” said Chasehope, and spoke no more.

Little news came in those days to Woodilee. In the open weather before the storm the pack-horses of the carriers came as usual from Edinburgh, and the drovers on the road to England brought word of the doings in the capital. Johnnie Dow, the packman, went his rounds till the snow stopped him, but in January, when the weather cleared, he broke his leg in the Tarrit Moss, and for six weeks disappeared from the sight of men. But Johnnie at his best brought only the clash of the farm-towns and the news of Kirk Aller, and in the dead of the winter there was no chance of a post, so that David was buried as deep as if he had been in an isle of the Hebrides. It was only at Presbytery meetings that he heard tidings of the outer world, and these, passed through the minds of his excited brethren, were all of monstrous portents.

The Presbytery meetings in Kirk Aller were at first to David a welcome break in his quiet life. The one in November lasted two days, and he, as the youngest member, opened the exercises and discoursed with acceptance on a Scripture passage. The business was dull, being for the most part remits from the kirk sessions of contumacious heritors and local scandals and repairs to churches. The sederunt over, the brethren adjourned to the Cross Keys Inn and dined off better fare than they were accustomed to in their manses. It was then that Mr. Muirhead in awful whispers told of news he had had by special post from Edinburgh. Malignancy had raised its head again, this time in their own covenanted land. Montrose, the recusant, had made his way north when he was least expected, and was now leading a host of wild Irish to the slaughter of the godly. There had been battles fought, some said near Perth, others as far off as Aberdeen, and the victory had not been to the righteous. Hideous tales were told of these Irish, led by a left-handed Macdonald — savage as Amalekites, blind zealots of Rome, burning and slaughtering, and sparing neither sex nor age. The trouble, no doubt, would be short-lived, for Leven’s men were marching from England, but it betokened some backsliding in God’s people. The Presbytery held a special meeting for prayer, when in lengthy supplications the Almighty was besought to explain whether the sin for which this disaster was the punishment lay with Parliament or Assembly, army or people.

To David the tale was staggering. Montrose was to him only a name, the name of a great noble who had at first served the cause of Christ and then betrayed it. This Judas had not yet gone to his account, was still permitted to trouble Israel, and now he had crowned his misdeeds by leading savages against his own kindly Scots. Like all his nation he had a horror of the Irish, whose barbarity had become a legend, and of Rome, whom he conceived as an unsleeping Antichrist, given a lease of the world by God till the cup of her abomination was full. The news shook him out of his political supineness, and for the moment made him as ardent a Covenanter as Mr. Muirhead himself. Then came the storm, when his head was filled with other concerns, and it was not till February that the Presbytery met again. This time the rumours were still darker. That very morning Mr. Muirhead had had a post which spoke of Montrose ravaging the lands of that light of the Gospel, Argyll — of his fleeing north, and, at the moment when his doom seemed assured, turning on the shore of a Highland sea-loch and scattering the Covenant army. It was the hour of peril, and the nation must humble itself before the Lord. A national fast had been decreed by Parliament, and it was resolved to set apart a day in each parish when some stout defender of the faith should call the people to examination and repentance. Mr. Proudfoot of Bold was one of the chosen vessels, and it was agreed that he should take the sermon on the fast-day in Woodilee in the first week of March.

But David was now in a different mood from that of November. He repressed with horror an unregenerate admiration for this Montrose, who, it seemed, was still young, and with a handful of caterans had laid an iron hand on the north. He might be a fine soldier, but he was beyond doubt a son of Belial. The trouble with David was the state of his own parish, compared with which the sorrows of Argyll seemed dim and far away.

January, after the snows melted, had been mild and open, with the burns running full and red, and the hills one vast plashing bog. With Candlemas came a black frost, which lasted the whole of February and the first half of March. The worst of the winter stringency was now approaching. The cattle in the yards and the sheep in the paddocks had become woefully lean, the meal in the girnels was running low, and everybody in the parish, except one or two of the farmers, had grown thin and pale-faced. Sickness was rife, and in one week the kirkyard saw six burials. . . . It was the season of births, too, as well as of deaths, and the howdie [midwife] was never off the road.

Strange stories came to his ears. One-half of the births were out of lawful wedlock . . . and most of the children were still-born. A young man is slow to awake to such a condition, and it was only the miserable business of the stool of repentance which opened his eyes. Haggard girls occupied the stool and did penance for their sin, but in only one case did the male paramour appear. . . . He found his Session in a strange mood, for instead of being eager to enforce the law of the Kirk, they seemed to desire to hush up the scandals, as if the thing was an epidemic visitation which might spoil their own repute. He interrogated them and got dull replies; he lost his temper, and they were silent. Where were the men who had betrayed these wretched girls? He repeated the question and found only sullen faces. One Sabbath he abandoned his ordinary routine and preached on the abominations of the heathen with a passion new to his hearers. His discourse was appreciated, and he was congratulated on it by Ephraim Caird; but there was no result, no confession, such as he had hoped for, from stricken sinners, no cracking of the wall of blank obstinate silence. . . . The thing was never out of his mind by day or night. What was betokened by so many infants born dead? He felt himself surrounded by a mystery of iniquity.

One night he spoke of it to Isobel, very shamefacedly, for it seemed an awful topic for a woman, however old. But Isobel was no more communicative than the rest. Even her honest eyes became shy and secretive. “Dinna you fash yoursel’, sir,” she said. “The Deil’s thrang in this parochine, and ye canna expect to get the upper hand o’ him in sax months. But ye’ll be even wi’ him yet, Mr. Sempill, wi’ your graund Gospel preachin’.” And then she added that on which he pondered many times in the night watches. “There will aye be trouble at this time o’ year so long as the folk tak’ the Wud at Beltane.”

The fast-day came, and Mr. Proudfoot preached a marrowy sermon. His subject was the everlasting fires of Hell, which awaited those who set their hand against a covenanted Kirk, and he exhausted himself in a minute description of the misery of an eternity of torment. “They shall be crowded,” he said, “like bricks in a fiery furnace. O what a bed is there! No feathers, but fire; no friends, but furies; no ease, but fetters; no daylight, but darkness; no clock to pass away the time, but endless eternity; fire eternal that ever burns and never dies.” He excelled in his conclusion. “Oh, my friends,” he cried, “I have given you but a short touch of the torments of Hell. Think of a barn or some other great place filled up topfull with grains of corn; and think of a bird coming every thousand years and fetching away one of those grains of corn. In time there might be an end of all and the barn might be emptied, but the torments of Hell have no end. Ten thousand times ten millions of years doth not at all shorten the miseries of the damned.”

There was a hush like death in the crowded kirk. A woman screamed in hysterics and was carried out, and many sobbed. At the close the elders thronged around Mr. Proudfoot and thanked him for a discourse so seasonable and inspired. But David spoke no word, for his heart had sickened. What meant these thunders against public sin when those who rejoiced in them were ready to condone a flagrant private iniquity? For a moment he felt that Montrose the apostate, doing evil with clean steel and shot, was less repugnant to God than his own Kirk Session.

The frost declined in mid-March, there was a fortnight of weeping thaw and a week of bitter east winds, and then in a single night came a south wind and spring blew up the glens.

Isobel chased the minister from his books.

“Awa’ to the hill like a man, and rax [stretch] your legs. Ye’ve had a sair winter, and your face is like a dish-clout. Awa’ and snowk up the caller air.”

David went out to the moors, and on the summit of the Hill of Deer had a prospect of the countryside, the contours sharp in the clear April light, and colour stealing back after the grey of winter. The Wood of Melanudrigill seemed to have crowded together again, and to have regained its darkness, but there was as yet no mystery in its shadows. The hill itself was yellow like old velvet, but green was mantling beside the brimming streams. The birches were still only a pale vapour, but there were buds on the saughs and the hazels. Remnants of old drifts lay behind the dykes, and on the Lammerlaw there was a great field of snow, but the breeze blew soft and the crying of curlews and plovers told of the spring. Up on Windyways and at the back of Reiverslaw the heather was burning, and spirals of blue smoke rose to the pale skies.

The sight was a revelation to a man to whom spring had come hitherto in the narrow streets of Edinburgh. He had a fancy that life was beating furiously under the brown earth, and that he was in the presence of a miracle. His youth, long frosted by winter, seemed to return to him and his whole being to thaw. Almost shamefacedly he acknowledged an uplift of spirit. The smoke from the moorburn was like the smoke of sacrifice on ancient altars — innocent sacrifice from kindly altars.

That night in his study he found that he could not bring his mind to his commentary on the prophet Isaiah. His thoughts ranged on other things, and he would fain have opened his Virgil. But, since these evening hours were dedicate to theology, he compromised with Clement of Alexandria, and read again the passage where that father of the Church becomes a poet and strives to mingle the classic and the Christian. —“This is the Mountain beloved of God, not a place of tragedies like Cithæron, but consecrate to the dramas of truth, a mount of temperance shaded with the groves of purity. And there revel on it not the Mænads, sisters of Semele the thunderstruck, initiate in the impure feast of flesh, but God’s daughters, fair Lambs who celebrate the holy rites of the Word, chanting soberly in chorus.”

In these days his sermons changed. He no longer hammered subtle chains of doctrine, but forsook his “ordinary,” and preached to the hearts of the people. Woodilee was in turn mystified, impressed, and disquieted. One bright afternoon he discoursed on thankfulness and the praise due to God. “Praise Him,” he cried, “if you have no more, for this good day and sunshine to the lambs.”

“Heard ye ever the like?” said Mirehope at the kirk door. “What concern has Jehovah wi’ our lambin’?”

“He’s an affectionate preacher,” said Chasehope, “but he’s no Boanerges, like Proudfoot o’ Bold.”

The other agreed, and though the tone of the two men was regretful, their eyes were content, as if they had no wish for a Boanerges in Woodilee.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/b/buchan/john/witch_wood/chapter4.html

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