Witch Wood, by John Buchan

Chapter 6

The Black Wood by Night

Word came of a great revival in the parish of Bold. Men called it a “Work,” and spoke of it in hushed voices, attributing it to the zeal and gifts of Mr. Ebenezer Proudfoot, the minister. For, after much preaching on fast-days in the shire, Mr. Ebenezer had fallen into a rapture and had seen visions, and spoken with strange voices. The terror of the unknown fell upon his people, fasting and prayer became the chief business of the parish, and the most careless were transformed into penitents. For a season there were no shortcomings in Bold; penny-bridals and fiddling and roystering at the change-houses were forgotten; even swearing and tippling were forsworn; the Sabbath was more strictly observed than by Israel in the Wilderness. To crown the Work, a great field~preaching was ordained, when thousands assembled on Bold Moor and the sacrament was dispensed among scenes of wild emotion. In Bold there was a lonely field of thistles, known as Guidman’s Croft, which had been held to be dedicate to the Evil One. The oxen of all the parish were yoked, and in an hour or two it was ploughed up and sown with bear for the use of the poor, as at once a thankoffering and a renunciation.

People in Woodilee talked much of the Work in Bold, and the Session sighed for a like experience. “Would but the wind blow frae that airt on our frostit lands!” was the aspiration of Peter Pennecuik. But David had no ears for these things, for he was engrossed with the conflict in his own soul.

Ever since that afternoon in Paradise he had walked like a man half asleep, his eyes turning inward. His first exhilaration had been succeeded by a black darkness of doubt. He had adventured into the Wood and found magic there, and the spell was tugging at his heartstrings. . . . Was the thing of Heaven or of Hell? . . . Sometimes, when he remembered the girl’s innocence and ardour, he thought of her as an angel. Surely no sin could dwell in so bright a presence. . . . But he remembered, too, how lightly she had held the things of the Kirk, how indeed she was vowed to the world against which the Kirk made war. Was she not a daughter of Heth, a fair Moabitish woman, with no part in the commonwealth of Israel? Her beauty was of the flesh, her graces were not those of the redeemed. And always came the conviction that nevertheless she had stolen his heart. “Will I too be unregenerate?” he asked himself with terror.

The more he looked into his soul the more he was perplexed. He thought of the groom at Calidon, to whom had gone out from him a spark of such affection as no other had inspired. That face was little out of his memory, and he longed to look on it again as a lover longs for his mistress. . . . But the man was Montrose the recreant, who was even now troubling God’s people, and who had been solemnly excommunicated by the very Kirk he was vowed to serve. . . . And yet, recreant or no, the man believed in God and had covenanted himself with the Almighty. . . . What were God’s purposes, and who were God’s people? Where in all the round earth should he find a solution of his doubts?

The study, now warm in the pleasant spring gloamings, saw no longer the preparation of the great work on Isaiah. It had become a closet for prayer. David cast his perplexities on the Lord, and waited feverishly for a sign. But no sign came. A horde of texts about Canaanitish garments and idol worship crowded into his mind, but he refused their application. A young man’s face, a girl’s eyes and voice, made folly of such easy formulas. . . . Yet there were moments when in sheer torment of soul David was minded to embrace them — to renounce what had charmed him as the Devil’s temptation, and steel his heart against its glamour.

One day he rode over to Cauldshaw to see Mr. Fordyce. He was in the mood for confession, but he found little encouragement. Mr. James was sick of a spring fever, and though he was on his feet he had been better in bed, for his teeth chattered and his hand trembled.

They spoke of the household at Calidon. “Mistress Saintserf has beyond doubt her interest in Christ,” said the minister of Cauldshaw. “When I have gone to Calidon for the catechizing I have found her quick to apprehend the doctrines of the faith, and her life is in all respects an ensample, save that she is something of a libertine with her tongue. But the lassie — she’s but a young thing, and has sojourned long in popish and prelatical lands. Yet I detect glimmerings of grace, Mr. David, and she has a heart that may well be attuned to God’s work. My wife pines for the sight of her like a sick man for the morning. Maybe I fail in my duty towards her, for she is lamentably ignorant, but I cannot find it in me to be harsh to so gracious a bairn.”

David returned with his purpose unfulfilled, but a certain comfort in his soul. He would rather have Mr. Fordyce’s judgment than that of the Boanerges of Bold or the sleek minister of Kirk Aller. His doubts were not resolved, but the very uncertainty gave him ease. He was not yet called to renunciation, and having reached this conclusion, he could let the memory of Paradise sweep back into his mind in a delightful flood.

Yet youth cannot be happy in indecision. David longed for some duty which would absorb the strong life that was in him. Why, oh why was he not a soldier? He turned to his parish, and tried to engross himself in its cares. It may have been that his perception was sharpened by his own mental conflicts, but he seemed to detect a strangeness in Woodilee.

It had been a fine spring, with a dry seed-bed, and the sowing of crops and the lambing had passed off well. The lean cattle had staggered out of byres and closes to the young grass, and their ribs were now covered again. Up on the hills lambs no longer tottered on weak legs. There was more food in the place, for there had been feasts of braxy mutton, and the hens were laying again, and there was milk in the cogies. The faces of the people had lost their winter strain; the girls had washed theirs, and fresh cheeks and bright eyes were to be seen on the roads. Woodilee had revived with the spring, but David as he went among the folk saw more than an increase in bodily well-being. . . . There was a queer undercurrent of excitement — or was it expectation? — and the thing was secret.

Every one did not share this. There seemed to be an inner circle in the parish which was linked together by some private bond. He began to guess at its membership by the eyes. Some looked him frankly in the face, and these were not always the best reputed. Amos Ritchie, the blacksmith, for instance — he was a profane swearer, and was sometimes overtaken in drink — and the farmer of Reiverslaw had, in addition to the latter failing, a violent temper, which made him feared and hated. Yet these two faced him like free men. But there were others, whose speech was often the most devout, who seemed to have shutters drawn over their eyes and to move stealthily on tiptoe.

Woodilee was amazingly well-conducted, and the Poor Box received the scantiest revenue in penalties. Apart from the lawless births in the winter, there were few apparent backslidings. David rarely met young lads and lasses at their hoydenish courtings in the gloamings. Oaths were never heard, and if there was drunkenness it was done in secret. Not often was a Sabbath-breaker before the Session, and there were no fines for slack attendance at the kirk. But as David watched the people thronging to service on the Sabbath, the girls in their clean linen, walking barefoot and only putting on shoes at the kirkyard gate, the men in decent homespun and broad bonnets, the old wives in their white mutches — as he looked down from the pulpit on the shoulders bent with toil, the heavy features hardened to a stiff decorum, the eyes fixed dully on his face — he had the sense that he was looking on masks. The real life of Woodilee was shut to him. “Ye are my people,” he told himself bitterly, “and I know ye not.”

This was not true of all. He knew the children, and there were certain of the older men and women in the parish who had given him their friendship. Peter Pennecuik, his principal elder and session-clerk, he felt that he knew to the bottom — what little there was to know, for the man was a sanctimonious egotist. With Amos Ritchie and Reiverslaw, too, he could stand as man with man. . . . But with many of the others he fenced as with aliens; the farmers, for example, Chasehope and Mirehope and Nether Fennan, and Spotswood the miller, and various elderly herds and hinds, and the wives of them. Above all, he was no nearer the youth of the parish than when first he came. The slouching hobbledehoy lads, the girls, some comely and high-coloured, some waxen white — they were civil and decent, but impenetrable. There were moments when he found himself looking of a Sabbath at his sober respectable folk as a hostile body, who watched him furtively lest he should learn too much of them. . . . Woodilee had an ill name in the shire, Mr. Fordyce had told him the first day in the manse. For what? What was the life from which he was so resolutely barred — he, their minister, who should know every secret of their souls? What was behind those shuttered eyes? Was it fear? He thought that there might be fear in it, but that more than fear it was a wild and sinister expectation.

On the last day of April he noted that Isobel was ill at ease. “Ye’ll be for a daunder, sir,” she said after the midday meal. “See and be hame in gude time for your supper — I’ve a rale guid yowe-milk kebbuck [cheese] for ye, and a new bakin’ o’ cakes — and I’ll hae the can’les lichtit in your chamber for you to get to your books.”

He smiled at his housekeeper. “Why this carefulness?” he said.

She laughed uneasily. “Naething by ordinar. But this is the day they ca’ the Rood–Mass and the morn is the Beltane, and it behoves a’ decent bodies to be indoors at the darkenin’ on Beltane’s Eve. My faither was a bauld man, but he wadna have stirred a fit over his ain doorstep on the night o’ Rood–Mass for a king’s ransom. There’s anither Beltane on the aucht day of May, and till that’s by we maun walk eidently.”

“Old wives’ tales,” he said.

“But they’re nane auld wives’ tales. They’re the tales o’ wise men and bauld men.”

“I thought of walking in the Wood.”

“Mercy on us!” she cried. “Ye’ll no gang near the Wud. No on this day o’ a’ days. It’s fou’ o’ bogles.”

Her insistence vexed him, and he spoke to her sharply. The heavy preoccupation of his mind had put him out of patience with folly. “Woman,” he cried, “what concern has a servant of God with these heathen fables? Think shame to repeat such folly.”

But Isobel was not convinced. She retired in dudgeon to her kitchen, and watched his movements till he left the house as a mother watches a defiant child. “Ye’ll be hame in guid time?” she begged.

“I will be home when I choose,” he said, and to show his independence he put some cheese and bannocks in his pockets.

The afternoon was warm and bright, with a thin haze on the highest hills. Spring had now fairly come; the yews in the kirkyard were russet with young shoots, the blossom was breaking on the hawthorn, and hazel and oak and ash were in leaf. His spirit was too laden to be sensible of the sweet influences of sky and moorland as on the walk which had first taken him to Paradise. But there was in him what had been lacking before — excitement, for he had tasted of magic and was in the constant expectation of finding it again. The land was not as it had once been, for it held somewhere enchantments — a girl’s face and a girl’s voice. From the summit of the Hill of Deer he looked towards Calidon hidden in the fold of the Rood hills. Was she there in the stone tower, or among the meadows whose green showed in the turn of the glen? Or was she in her old playground of the Wood?

He had resolved not to go near the place, so he set himself to walk in the opposite direction along the ridge of hill which made the northern wall of the Rood valley. As he strode over the short turf and scrambled through the patches of peat-bog his spirits rose. It was hard not to be light-hearted in that world of essential airs and fresh odours and nesting birds. Presently he was in view of Calidon tower, and then he was past it, and the Rood below him was creeping nearer to his level as its glen lifted towards its source. He strode along till he felt the sedentary humours leave his body and his limbs acquire the lightness which is the reward of the hill walker. He seemed, too, to gain a lightness of soul and a clearness of eye. In a world which God had made so fair and clean, there could be no sin in anything that was also fair and innocent.

The sun had set beyond Herstane Craig before he turned his steps. Now from the hilltops he had Melanudrigill before him, a distant shadow in the trough of the valley. Since that afternoon in Paradise awe of the Wood had left him. He had been among its pines and had found Katrine there. He watched the cloud of trees, growing nearer at each step, as earlier that day he had watched the environs of Calidon. It was her haunt; haply she might now be there, singing in the scented twilight?

When he stood above Reiverslaw the dusk was purple about him, and the moon, almost at her full, was climbing the sky. He longed to see how Paradise looked in this elfin light, for he had a premonition that the girl might have lingered there late and that he would meet her. There was no duty to take him home — nothing but Isobel’s silly fables. But in deference to Isobel he took the omens. He sent his staff twirling into the air. If it fell with the crook towards him, he would go home. The thing lighted in a heather bush with the crook at the far end. So he plunged downhill among the hazels, making for the glade which slanted eastward towards the deserted mill.

He found it, and it was very dark in that narrow place. There was no light to see the flowers by, and there was no colour in it, only a dim purple gloom and the white of the falling stream, for the moon was still too low in the heavens to reach it.

In time he came to the high bank where the pines began. He was looking for Paradise, but he could not find it. It was not among the pines, he remembered, but among the oaks and hazels, but he had gone to it through the pines, led by a flitting girl. . . . He found the point where he had entered the darker Wood, and resolved to try to retrace his former tracks.

The place was less murky than he had expected, for the moon was now well up the sky, so that every glade was a patch of white light. . . . This surely was the open space where he had first caught the glimmer of a green gown. . . . There were the rocks where she had stood at bay. . . . She had led him down the hill and then at a slant — but was it to right or left? Right, he thought, and plunged through a wilderness of fern. There had been briars, too, and this was surely the place where a vast uprooted trunk had forced them to make a detour.

Then he found a little stream which he fancied might be the outflow of the Paradise well. So he turned up hill again, and came into a jungle of scrub and boulder. There was in most places a dim light to move by, but a dim light in a broken wood is apt to confuse the mind. David had soon lost all sense of direction, save that of the upward and downward slopes. He did not know east or west, and he did not stop to think, for he was beginning to be mesmerized by the hour and the scene. Dew was in the air and an overpowering sweetness of fern and pine and mosses, and through the aisles of the high trees came a shimmer of palest gold, and in the open spaces the moon rode in the dusky blue heavens — not the mild moon of April, but a fiery conquering goddess, driving her chariot among trampled stars.

It was clear to him that he would not find Paradise except by happy chance, since he was utterly out of his bearings. But he was content to be lost, for the whole place was Paradise. Never before had he felt so strong a natural magic. This woodland, which he had once shunned, had become a holy place, lit with heavenly lights and hallowed by some primordial peace. He had forgotten about the girl, forgotten his scruples. In that hour he had acquired a mood at once serene and gay: he had the light-heartedness of a boy and the ease of a wise philosopher; his body seemed as light as air, and, though he had already walked some twenty miles, he felt as if he had just risen from his bed. But there was no exuberance in him, and he had not the impulse to sing which usually attended his seasons of high spirits. . . . The silence struck upon him as something at once miraculous and just. There was not a sound in the Wood — not the lightest whisper of wind, though there had been a breeze on the hilltops at sundown — not the cry of a single bird — not a rustle in the undergrowth. The place was dumb — not dead, but sleeping.

Suddenly he came into a broad glade over which the moonshine flowed like a tide. It was all of soft mossy green, without pebble or bush to break its carpet, and in the centre stood a thing like an altar.

At first he thought it was only a boulder dropped from the hill. But as he neared it he saw that it was human handiwork. Masons centuries ago had wrought on it, for it was roughly squared, and firmly founded on a pediment. Weather had battered it, and one corner of the top had been broken by some old storm, but it still stood foursquare to the seasons. One side was very clear in the moon, and on it David thought he could detect a half-obliterated legend. He knelt down, and though the lower part was obscured beyond hope, the upper letters stood out plain. I. O. M. — he read: “Jovi Optimo Maximo.” This uncouth thing had once been an altar.

He tiptoed away from it with a sudden sense of awe. Others had known this wood — mailed Romans clanking up the long roads from the south, white-robed priests who had once sacrificed here to their dead gods. He was scholar enough to feel the magic of this sudden window opened into the past. But there was that in the discovery which disquieted as well as charmed him. The mysteries of the heathen had been here, and he felt the simplicity of the woodland violated and its peace ravished. Once there had been wild tongues in the air, and he almost seemed to hear their echo.

He hurried off into the dark undergrowth. . . . But now his mood had changed. He felt fatigue, his eyes were drowsy, and he thought of the anxious Isobel sitting up for him. He realized that this was the night of Rood–Mass — pagan and papistical folly, but his reason could not altogether curb his fancy. The old folk said — folly, no doubt, but still — He had an overpowering desire to be safe in his bed at the manse. He would retrace his steps and strike the road from Reiverslaw. That would mean going west, and after a moment’s puzzling he started to run in what he thought the right direction.

The Wood, or his own mind, had changed. The moonlight was no longer gracious and kind, but like the dead-fires which the old folk said burned in the kirkyard. Confusion on the old folk, for their tales were making him a bairn again! . . . But what now broke the stillness? for it seemed as if there were veritably tongues in the air — not honest things like birds and winds, but tongues. The place was still silent so far as earthly sounds went — he realized that, when he stopped to listen — but nevertheless he had an impression of movement everywhere, of rustling — yes, and of tongues.

Fortune was against him, for he reached a glade and saw that it was the one which he had left and which he thought he had avoided. . . . There was a change in it, for the altar in the centre was draped. At first he thought it only a freak of moonlight, till he forced himself to go nearer. Then he saw that it was a coarse white linen cloth, such as was used in the kirk at the seasons of sacrament.

The discovery affected him with a spasm of blind terror. All the tales of the Wood, all the shrinking he had once felt for it, rushed back on his mind. For the moment he was an infant again, lost and fluttering, assailed by the shapeless phantoms of the dark. He fled from the place as if from something accursed.

Uphill he ran, for he felt that safety was in the hills and that soon he might come to the clear spaces of the heather. But a wall of crag forced him back, and he ran as he thought westward towards the oaks and hazels, for there he deemed he would be free of the magic of the pines. He did not run wildly, but softly and furtively, keeping to the moss and the darker places, and avoiding any crackling of twigs, for he felt as if the Wood were full of watchers. At the back of his head was a stinging sense of shame — that he, a grown man and a minister of God, should be in such a pit of terror. But his instinct was stronger than his reason. He felt his heart crowding into his throat, and his legs so weak and uncontrollable that they seemed to be separate from his body. The boughs of the undergrowth whipped his face, and he knew that his cheeks were wet with blood, though he felt no pain.

The trees thinned and he saw light ahead — surely it was the glen which marked the division between pine and hazel. He quickened his speed, and the curtain of his fear lifted ever so little. He heard sounds now — was it the wind which he had left on the hilltops? There was a piping note in it, something high and clear and shrill — and yet the Wood had been so airless that his body was damp with sweat. Now he was very near air and sanctuary.

His heart seemed to stop, and his legs wavered so that he sunk on his knees. For he was looking again on the accursed glade.

It was no longer empty. The draped altar was hidden by figures — human or infernal — moving round it in a slow dance. Beyond this circle sat another who played on some instrument. The moss stilled the noise of movement, and the only sound was the high, mad piping.

A film cleared from his eyes, and something lost came back to him — manhood, conscience, courage. Awe still held him, but it was being overmastered by a human repulsion and anger. For as he watched the dance he saw that the figures were indeed human, men and women both — the women half-naked, but the men with strange headpieces like animals. What he had taken for demons from the Pit were masked mortals — one with the snout of a pig, one with a goat’s horns, and the piper a gaping black hound. . . . As they passed, the altar was for a moment uncovered, and he saw that food and drink were set on it for some infernal sacrament.

The dance was slow and curiously arranged, for each woman was held close from behind by her partner. And they danced widdershins, against the sun. To one accustomed to the open movement of country jigs and reels the thing seemed the uttermost evil — the grinning masks, the white tranced female faces, the obscene postures, above all that witch-music as horrid as a moan of terror.

David, a great anger gathering in his heart, was on his feet now, and as he rose the piping changed. Its slow measure became a crazy lilt, quick and furious. The piper was capering; the dancers, still going widdershins, swung round and leaped forward, flinging their limbs as in some demented reel. . . . There were old women there, for he saw grey hair flying. And now came human cries to add to the din of the pipe — a crying and a sighing wrung out of maddened bodies.

To David it seemed a vision of the lost in Hell. The fury of an Israelitish prophet came upon him. He strode into the glade. Devils or no, he would put an end to this convention of the damned.

“In the name of God,” he cried, “I forbid you. If you are mortal, I summon you to repent — if you are demons, I command you to return to him that sent you.”

He had a great voice, but in that company there were no ears to hear. The pipe screeched and the dance went on.

Then the minister of Woodilee also went mad. A passion such as he had never known stiffened every nerve and sinew. He flung himself into the throng, into that reek of unclean bestial pelts and sweating bodies. He reached the altar, seized the cloth on it, and swept it and its contents to the ground. Then he broke out of the circle and made for the capering piper, who seemed to him the chief of the orgiasts.

In his flight through the wood David had lost his staff, and had as weapon but his two hands. “Aroynt you, Sathanas,” he cried, snatched the pipe from the dog-faced figure, and shivered it on his masked head.

With the pause in the music the dance stopped suddenly, and in an instant the whole flock were on him like a weasel pack. He saw long-nailed claws stretched towards his face, he saw blank eyes suddenly fire into a lust of hate. But he had a second’s start of them, and that second he gave to the piper. The man — for the thing was clearly human — had dealt a mighty buffet at his assailant’s face, which missed it, and struck the point of the shoulder. David was whirled round, but, being young and nimble, he slipped in under the other’s guard, and had his hands on the hound-mask. The man was very powerful, but the minister’s knee was in his groin, and he toppled over, while David tore the covering of wood and skin from his head. It crumpled under his violent clutch like a wasps’ nest, and he had a glimpse of red hair and a mottled face.

A glimpse and no more. For by this time the press was on him and fingers were at his throat, choking out his senses.

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