Witch Wood, by John Buchan

Chapter 5

The Black Wood by Day

On the 22nd day of April the minister went for a walk on the Hill of Deer. He had heard news from Isobel which had awakened his numbed memory. All the long dark winter Woodilee had been severed from the world, and David had also lived in the cage and had had no thoughts beyond the parish. Calidon and its people were as little in his mind as if they had been on another planet. But as spring loosened the bonds word of the neighbourhood’s doings was coming in.

“Johnnie Dow’s ben the house,” Isobel had said as he sat at meat. “He’s come down the water frae Calidon, and it seems there’s unco changes there. The laird is awa’ to the wars again. . . . Na, Johnnie didna ken what airt he had ridden. He gaed off ae mornin’ wi’ his man Tam Purves, baith o’ them on muckle horses, and that’s the last heard o’ them. It seems that the laird’s gude-sister, Mistress Saintserf frae Embro, cam’ oot a fortnight syne to tak’ chairge o’ Calidon and the young lassie — there’s a lassie bides there, ye maun ken, sir, though nane o’ the Woodilee folk ever cast een on her — and the puir body was like to be smoored [smothered] in the Carnwath Moss. Johnnie says she’s an auld wumman, as straucht as a wand and wi’ an unco ill tongue in her heid. She fleyed Johnnie awa’ frae the door when he was for daffin’ wi’ the serving lasses.”

It was of Calidon that David thought as he took the hill. Nicholas Hawkshaw, lame as he was, had gone back to the wars. What wars? Remembering the talk of that autumn night he feared that it could not be a campaign of which a minister of the Kirk would approve. Was it possible that he had gone to join Montrose in his evil work? And the troopers and the groom? Were they with Leven again under the Covenant’s banner, or were they perilling their souls with the malignants? The latter most likely, and to his surprise he felt no desire to reprobate them. Spring was loosening other bonds than those of winter.

It was a bright warm day, which might have been borrowed from June, and the bursting leaves were stirred by a wandering west wind. David sat for a little on the crest of the hill, gazing at the high summits, which, in the April light, were clear in every nook and yet infinitely distant. The great Herstane Craig had old snowdrifts still in its ravines, and he had the fancy that it was really built of marble which shone in places through the brown husk. The Green Dod did not now belie its name; above the screes and heather of its flanks rose a cone of dazzling greenness. The upper Aller glen was filled with pure sunshine, the very quintessence of light, and the sword-cut of the Rood was for once free from gloom. There was no gold in the landscape, for the shallows, even when they caught the sun, were silver, the bent was flushing into the palest green, the skies above were an infinity of colourless light. And yet the riot of spring was there. David felt it in his bones and in his heart.

The herd of Reiverslaw was busy with his late lambs. The man, Prentice by name, was a sour fellow whom an accident in childhood had deprived of a leg. In spite of his misfortune he could move about on a single crutch at a good pace, and had a voice and a tongue which the parish feared. He was a noted professor, with an uncanny gift of prayer, and his by-names in Woodilee were “Hirplin’ Rab” and the “One Leggit Prophet.” But to-day even Prentice seemed mellowed by the spring. He gave David a friendly good-day. “The voice o’ the turtle is heard on the yirth,” he announced, and as he hobbled over a patch of old moorburn, sending up clouds of grey dust, Prentice too became a figure of pastoral.

David had rarely felt a more benignant mood. The grimness of winter had gone clean out of his mind, and he had entered on a large and gracious world. He walked slowly like an epicure, drinking in the quintessential air of the hills, marking the strong blue swirl of the burns, the fresh green of the mosses, the buds on the hawthorns, the flash of the water-ouzels in the spray of the little falls. Curlews and peewits filled the moor with their crying, and as he began to descend into the Rood glen a lark — the first he had heard — rose to heaven with a flood of song.

His eyes had been so engaged with the foreground that he had not looked towards Melanudrigill. Now he saw it, dark and massy, the only opaque thing in a translucent world. But there was nothing oppressive in its shadows, for oppression could not exist in a scene so full of air and light and song. For a moment he had a mind to go boldly into its coverts by way of Reiverslaw and make for the lower course of the Woodilee burn. But the sight of the wild wood in the Rood glen detained him. It was a day not for the pines, but for the hazels and birches, where in open glades a man would have always a view of the hills and the sky. So he slanted to his right through the open coppice, meaning to reach the valley floor near the foot of the path which led to the Greenshiel.

The coppice was thicker than he had imagined. This was no hillside scrub, but a forest, a greenwood, with its own glades and hollows, its own miniature glens and streams. He was in the midst of small birds who made a cheerful twittering from the greening boughs, cushats too were busy, and the thickets were full of friendly beasts. He saw the russet back of a deer as it broke cover, and the tawny streak of a hill-fox, and there was a perpetual scurrying of rabbits. Above all there was a glory of primroses. The pale blossoms starred the glades and the sides of the dells, clung to tree-roots, and climbed into crannies of the grey whinstone rock. So thick they were, that their paleness became golden, the first strong colour he had seen that day. David was young and his heart was light, so he gathered a great clump of blooms for his manse table, and set a bouquet in his coat and another in his bonnet. These latter would have to go before he reached the highway, or the parish would think that its minister had gone daft. But here in the secret greenwood he could forget decorum and bedeck himself like a child.

Presently he had forgotten the route he had planned. He found himself in a shallow glade which ran to the left and away from the Greenshiel, and down which leaped a burn so entrancing in its madcap grace that he could not choose but follow it. Memory returned to him; this must be the burn which descended near the mill at Roodfoot; he knew well its lower course, for he had often guddled trout in its pools, but he had never explored its upper waters. Now he felt the excitement of a discoverer. . . . The ravine narrowed to a cleft where the stream fell in a white spout into a cauldron. David made the passage by slithering down the adjacent rocks and emerged wet to the knees. He was as amused as a boy playing truant from school, and when he found a water-ouzel’s nest in the notch of a tree-root he felt that he had profit of his truancy. There came a more level stretch, which was a glory of primroses and wood-anemones, then another linn, and then a cup of turf rimmed with hazels, where the water twined in placid shallows. . . . He looked up and saw on the opposite bank a regiment of dark pines.

He had come to the edge of Melanudrigill. The trees rose like a cloud above him, and after the open coppice of birch and hazel he seemed to be looking into deep water where things were seen darkly as through a dull glass. There were glades which ran into shadows, and fantastic rocks, and mounds of dead bracken which looked like tombs. Yet the place fascinated him. It, too, was under the spell of Spring, and he wondered how Spring walked in its recesses. He leapt the stream and scrambled up the bank with an odd feeling of expectation. He was called to adventure on this day of days.

The place was not dark, but dim and very green. The ancient pines grew more sparsely than he had imagined, and beneath them were masses of sprouting ferns — primroses too, and violets, which he had not found among the hazels. A scent of rooty dampness was about, of fresh-turned earth, and welling fountains. In every tree-root wood-sorrel clustered. But there were no small birds, only large things like cushats and hawks, which made a movement in the high branches. A little farther and he was in a glade, far more of a glade than the clearings in the hazels, for it was sharply defined by the walls of shade.

He stood and gazed, stuck silent by its beauty. Here in truth was a dancing-floor for wood nymphs, a playground for the Good Folk. It seemed strange that the place should be untenanted. . . . There was a rustling in the covert, and his heart beat. He was no longer the adventurous boy, but a young man with a fancy fed by knowledge. He felt that the glade was aware and not empty. Light feet had lately brushed its sward. . . . There was a rustling again, and a gleam of colour. He stood poised like a runner, his blood throbbing in a sudden rapture.

There was the gleam again and the rustle. He thought that at the far end of the glade behind the red bracken he saw a figure. In two steps he was certain. A green gown fluttered, and at his third step broke cover. He saw the form of a girl — nymph, fairy, or mortal, he knew not which. He was no more the minister of Woodilee, but eternal wandering youth, and he gave chase.

The green gown wavered for a moment between two gnarled pines and then was lost in the dead fern. He saw it again in the cleft of a tiny rivulet which came down from a pile of rocks, but he missed it as he scrambled up the steep. It seemed that the gown played tricks with him and led him on, for, as he checked at fault, he had a glimpse of it lower down, where an aisle in the trees gave a view of the bald top of a mountain. David was young and active, but the gown was swifter than he, for as he went down the slope in great leaps it vanished into the dusk of the pines. He had it again, lost it, found it suddenly high above him — always a glimmer of green with but a hint of a girl’s form behind it. . . . David became wary. Nymph or human, it should not beat him at this sport of hide-and-seek. There was a line of low cliffs above, up which it could not go unless it took wings. David kept the lower ground, determined that he would drive that which he followed towards the cliff line. He succeeded, for after twice trying to break away, the gown fluttered into a tiny ravine, with thick scrub on both sides and the rock wall at the top. As David panted upward he saw in a mossy place below the crags a breathless girl trying to master her tumbling tresses.

He stopped short in a deep embarrassment. He had been pursuing a fairy, and had found a mortal — a mortal who looked down on him with a flushed face and angry eyes. He was furiously hot, and the pace and his amazement bereft him of speech. It was she who spoke first.

“What does the minister of Woodilee in the Wood — and bedecked with primroses?”

The voice was familiar, and as he brushed the sweat from his eyes the face too awoke recollection. She was far cooler than he, but her cheeks were flushed, and he had seen before those dark mirthful eyes. Mirthful they were, for her anger seemed to have gone, and she was looking down on him with a shy amusement. She had recognized him too, and had spoken his name. . . . He had it. It was the girl who had curtsied to Nicholas Hawkshaw’s guests in the candle-light at Calidon. His abashment was increased.

“Madam,” he stammered, “Madam, I thought you were a fairy.”

She laughed out loud with the abandonment of childhood. “A fairy! And, pray, sir, is it part of the duties of a gospel minister to pursue fairies in the woods?”

“I am shamed,” he cried. “You do well to upbraid me. But on this spring day I had forgot my sacred calling and dreamed I was a boy once more.”

“I do not upbraid you. Indeed I am glad that a minister can still be a boy. But folks do not come here, and I thought the wood my own, so when I saw you stumbling among the fern I had a notion to play a trick on you, and frighten you, as I have frightened intruders before. I thought you would run away. But you were too bold for me, and now you have discovered my secret. This wood is my playground, where I can pick flowers and sing ballads and be happy with birds and beasts. . . . You were a man before you were a minister. What is your name?”

“They call me David Sempill. I lived as a child at the Mill of the Roodfoot.”

“Then you have seisin of this land. You too have played in the Wood?”

“Nay, madam, the Wood is strange to me. I have but ridden through it, and till to-day I have had some dread of it. This Melanudrigill is ill reputed.”

“Old wives’ havers! It is a blessed and innocent place. But I do not like that name — Melanudrigill. There is dark magic there. Call it the Wood, and you will love it as I do. . . . See, I am coming down. Make room, please, and then I will take you to Paradise. You do not know Paradise? It is the shrine of this grove, and none but me can find the road.”

This was not the stately lady in the gown of yellow satin and blue velvet who had abashed him that night in Calidon tower. It was a slim laughing girl in green who presently stood beside him, her feet in stout country shoes, her hair bound only by a silk fillet and still unruly from the chase. He suddenly lost his embarrassment. His reason told him that this was Katrine Yester of Calidon, a daughter of a proud and contumacious house that was looked askance at by the godly, a woman, a beauty — commodities of which he knew nothing. But his reason was blinded, and he saw only a girl on a spring holiday.

She led him down the hill, and as she went she chattered gaily, like a solitary child who has found a comrade.

“I saw you before you saw me, and I hoped you would follow when I ran away. I liked you that night at Calidon. They told me that ministers were all sour-faced and old, but you looked kind. And you are merry, too, I think — not sad, like most people in Scotland.”

“You have not been long in this land?” he asked.

“Since June of last year. This is my first Scottish spring, and it is different from France and England. In those lands summer comes with a rush on winter’s heels, but here there is a long preparation, and flowers steal very softly back to the world. I have lived mostly in France since my father died.”

“That is why your speech is so strange to my ears.”

“And yours to mine,” she retorted. “But Aunt Grizel is teaching me to be a good Scotswoman. I am made to spin till my arms are weary, and to make horrid brews of herbs, and to cook your strange dishes. ‘Kaatrine, ye daft quean, what for maun ye fill the hoose wi’ floorish and nesty green busses? D’ye think we’re nowt and the auld tower o’ Calidon a byre?’ That is Aunt Grizel. But she is like a good dog and barks but does not bite, though the serving~maids walk in terror. I play with her at the cartes, and she tells me tales, but not such good ones as Uncle Nick’s. Heigho! I wish the wars were over and he were home again. . . . Now, sir, what do you think of this? It is the gate of Paradise.”

She had led him into a part of the wood where the pines ceased and a green cleft was lined with bursting hazels and rowans and the tassels of birch. The place was rather hill than woodland, for the turf was as fine as on a mountain-side, and in the centre a bubbling spring sent out a rivulet, which twined among the flowers till it dropped in a long cascade to a lower shelf. Primroses, violets, and anemones made it as bright as a garden.

“I call this Paradise,” she said, “because it is hard for mortals to find. You would not guess it was here till you stumbled on it.”

“It’s away from the pines,” he said.

She nodded her head. “I love the dark trees well enough, and on a day like this I am happy among them. But they are moody things, and when there is no sun and the wind blows they make me sad. Here I am gay in any weather, for it is a kindly place. Confess, sir, that I have chosen well.”

“You have chosen well. It is what the poet wrote of — Deus nobis hæc otia fecit.”

“La, la! That is Latin, and I am not learned. But I can quote my own poets.” And in a voice like a bird’s she trilled a stanza of which David comprehended no more than that it was a song of Spring, and that it was Flora the goddess herself who sang it.

“O fontaine Bellerie,
Belle fontaine chérie
De nos Nymphes, quand ton eau
Les cache au creux de ta source,
Fuyantes le Satyreau
Qui les pourchasse à la course
Jusqu’au bord de ton ruisseau,
Tu es la Nymphe éternelle
De ma terre paternelle —”

Some strange and cataclysmic transformation was going on in David’s mind. He realized that a film had cleared from his sight, and that he was looking with new eyes. This dancing creature had unlocked a door for him — whether for good or ill he knew not, and did not care. He wanted the world to stand still and the scene to remain fixed for ever — the spring glade and the dark-haired girl singing among the primroses. He had the courage now to call her by her name.

“You have a voice like a linnet, Mistress Katrine. Can you sing none of our country songs?”

“I am learning them from the serving-maids. I know ‘The Ewebuchts’ and ‘The Yellow-hair’d Laddie’ and — ah, this is the one for Paradise,” and she sang:

“The King’s young dochter was sitting in her window,
Sewing at her silken seam;
She lookt out o’ a bow-window,
And she saw the leaves growing green,
My luve;
And she saw the leaves growing green.”

“But Jean, the goose-girl who taught it me, remembered just the one verse. I wish I was a poet to make others.”

Above the well was one of those circles of green mounds which country people call fairy-rings. The girl seated herself in the centre and began to make posies of the flowers she had picked. David lay on the turf at her feet, watching the quick movement of her hands, his garlanded hat removed and the temperate sun warming his body. Never had he felt so bathed in happy peace.

The pixie seated above him spared time from her flowers to glance down at him, and found him regarding her with abstracted eyes. For he was trying to fit this bright creature into his scheme of things. Did the world of the two of them touch nowhere save in this woodland?

“Your uncle is the chief heritor in Woodilee parish,” he said, “but you do not come to the kirk.”

“I was there no longer back than last Sunday —” she said.

“Sabbath,” he corrected.

“Sabbath, if you will have it so. Calidon is in Cauldshaw parish, and it was to Cauldshaw kirk we went. Four weary miles of jogging on a plough-horse, I riding pillion to Aunt Grizel. Before that the drifts were too deep to take the road. . . . I have heard many a sermon from Mr. Fordyce.”

“He is a good man.”

“He is a dull man. Such a preachment on dismal texts. ‘Seventhly, my brethren, and in parenthesis —’” she mimicked. “But he is beyond doubt good, and Aunt Grizel says she has benefited from his words, and would fain repay him by healing his disorders. He has many bodily disorders, the poor man, and Aunt Grizel loves sermons much, but her simples more.”

“You do not love sermons?”

She made a mouth.

“I do not think I follow them. You are learned theologians, you of Scotland, and I am still at the horn-book. But some day I will come to hear you, for YOUR sermons I think I might understand.”

“I could not preach to you,” he said.

“And wherefore, sir? Are your discourses only for wrinkled carls and old rudas wives? Is there no place in your kirk for a girl?”

“You are not of our people. The seed can be sown only in a field prepared.”

“But that is heresy. Are not all souls alike?”

“True. But the voice of the preacher is heard only by open ears. I think you are too happy in your youth, mistress, for my solemnities.”

“You do me injustice,” she said, and her face was grave. “I am young, and I think I have a cheerful heart, for I can exult in a spring morning, and I cannot be very long sad. But I have had sorrows — a father slain in the wars, a mother dead of grieving, a bundling about among kinsfolk who were not all gracious. I have often had sore need of comfort, sir.”

“You have found it — where?”

“In the resolve never to be a faintheart. That is my creed, though I fail often in the practice.”

To an ear accustomed to a formal piety the confession seemed almost a blasphemy. He shook a disapproving head.

“That is but a cold pagan philosophy,” he said.

“Yet I learned it from a sermon, and that little more than a year back.”

“Where was it preached?”

“In England, and in no kirk, but at the King’s Court.”

“Was it by Mr. Henderson?”

“It was by a Presbyterian — but he was no minister. Listen, and I will tell you the story. In March of last year I was taken to Oxford by my lady Grevel, and was presented by her to the Queen, and her Majesty deigned to approve of me, so that I became a maid~of-honour, and was lodged beside her in Merton College. There all day long was a coming and going of great men. There I saw”— she counted on her fingers —“his grace of Hamilton — him I did not like — and my lord of Nithsdale, and my lord of Aboyne, and my lord Ogilvy, and that very grave person Sir Edward Hyde, and my lord Digby, and the wise Mr. Endymion Porter. And all day long there were distracted counsels, and the King’s servants plotting in side~chambers, and treason whispered, and nowhere a clear vision or a brave heart. Then there came among us a young man, who spoke simply. ‘If the King’s cause go down in England,’ he said, ‘it may be saved in Scotland.’ When they asked him what he proposed, he said —‘To raise the North for his Majesty.’ When they asked him by what means, he said —‘By my own resolution.’ All doubted and many laughed, but that young man was not discouraged. ‘The arm of the Lord is not shortened,’ he said, ‘and they who trust in Him will not be dismayed. . . . ’ That was the sermon he preached, and there was silence among the doubters. Then said Mr. Porter: ‘There is a certain faith that moves mountains, and a certain spirit which may win against all odds. My voice is for the venture!’ . . . And then the Queen, my mistress, kissed the young man, and the King made him his lieutenant-general. . . . I watched him ride out of the city two days later, attended by but one servant, on his mission to conquer Scotland, and I flung him a nosegay of early primroses. He caught it and set it in his breast, and he waved his hand to me as he passed through the north gate.”

“Who was this hero?” David asked eagerly, for the tale had fired him.

The girl’s face was flushed and her eyes glistened.

“That was a year ago,” she went on. “To-day he has done his purpose. He has won Scotland for the King.”

David gasped.

“Montrose the malignant!” he cried.

“He is as good a Presbyterian as you, sir,” she replied gently. “Do not call him malignant. He made his way north through his enemies as if God had sent His angel to guide him. And he is born to lead men to triumph. Did you not feel the compulsion of his greatness?”

“I?” David stammered.

“They told me that you had spoken with him, and that he liked you well. Yon groom at Calidon was the Lord Marquis.”

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