Witch Wood, by John Buchan

Chapter 7

The First Blast

Late in the forenoon of the next day David awoke in his own bed in the manse of Woodilee. He awoke to a multitude of small aches and one great one, for his forehead was banded with pain. The room was as bright with sunshine as the little window would permit, but it seemed to him a dusk shot by curious colours, with Isobel’s head bobbing in it like a fish. Presently the face became clear and he saw it very near to him — a scared white face with red-rimmed eyes. Her voice penetrated the confused noises in his ears.

“The Lord be thankit, sir, the Lord be praised, Mr. David, ye’re comin’ oot o’ your dwam. Here’s a fine het drink for ye. Get it doun like a man and syne ye’ll maybe sleep. There’s nae banes broke, and I’ve dressed your face wi’ a sure salve. Dinna disturb the clouts, sir. Your skin’s ower clean to beal [fester], and ye’ll mend quick if ye let the clouts bide a wee.”

Her arm raised his aching head, and he swallowed the gruel. It made him drowsy, and soon he was asleep again, a healthy natural sleep, so that when he awoke in the evening he was in comparative ease and his headache had gone. Gingerly he felt his body. There were bruises on his legs, and one huge one on his right thigh. His cheeks under the bandages felt raw and scarred, and there was a tenderness about his throat and the muscles of his neck, as if angry hands had throttled him. But apart from his stiffness he seemed to have suffered no great bodily hurt, and the effects of the slight concussion had passed.

With this assurance his mind came out of its torpor, and he found himself in a misery of disquiet. The events of the night before returned to him only too clearly. He remembered his exaltation in the Wood — the glade, the altar. He recalled with abasement his panic and his flight. The glade again, the piping, the obscene dance — and at that memory he had almost staggered from his bed. He felt again the blind horror and wrath which had hurled him into the infernal throng.

Isobel’s anxious face appeared in the doorway.

“Ye’ve had a graund sleep, sir. And now ye’ll be for a bite o’ meat?”

“I have slept well, and I am well enough in body. Sit you down, Isobel Veitch, for I have much to say to you. How came I home last night?”

The woman sat down on the edge of a chair, and even in the twilight her nervousness was manifest.

“It wasna last nicht. It was aboot the hour o’ three this mornin’, and sic a nicht as I had waitin’ on ye! Oh, sir, what garred ye no hearken to me and gang to the Wud on Rood–Mass?”

“How do you know I was in the Wood?”

She did not answer.

“Tell me,” he said, “how I came home.”

“I was ryngin’ the hoose like a lost yowe, but I didna daur gang outbye. At twal hours I took a look up the road, and again when the knock was chappin’ twa. Syne I dozed off in my chair, till the knock waukened me. That was at three hours, and as I waukened I heard steps outbye. I keekit oot o’ the windy, but there was naebody on the road, just the yellow mune. I prayed to the Lord to strengthen me, and by-and-by I ventured out, but I fand naething. Syne I took a thocht to try the back yaird, and my hert gied a stound, for there was yoursel’, Mr. David, lyin’ like a cauld corp aneath the aipple tree. Blithe I was to find the breath still in ye, but I had a sair job gettin’ ye to your bed, sir, for ye’re a weary wecht for an auld wumman. The sun was up or I got your wounds washed and salved, and syne I sat by the bed prayin’ to the Lord that ye suld wauken in your richt mind, for I saw fine that the wounds o’ your body would heal, but I feared that the wits micht have clean gane frae ye. And now I am abundantly answered, for ye’re speakin’ like yoursel’, and your een’s as I mind them, and the blood’s back intil your cheeks. The Lord be thankit!”

But there was no jubilation in Isobel’s voice. Her fingers twined confusedly, and her eyes wandered.

“Do you know what befell me?” he asked.

“Eh, sirs, how suld I ken?”

“But what do you think? You find me in the small hours lying senseless at your door, with my face scarred and my body bruised. What do you think I had suffered?”

“I think ye were clawed by bogles, whilk a’body kens are gi’en a free dispensation on Rood–Mass E’en.”

“Woman, what is this talk of bogles from lips that have confessed Christ? I was assaulted by the Devil, but his emissaries were flesh and blood. I tell you it was women’s nails that tore my face, and men’s hands that clutched my throat. I walked in the Wood, for what has a minister of God to fear from trees and darkness? And as I walked I found in an open place a heathen altar, and that altar was covered with a linen cloth, as if for a sacrament. I was afraid — I confess it with shame — but the Lord used my fear for His own purpose, and led me back in my flight to that very altar. And there I saw what may God in His mercy forbid that I should see again — a dance of devils to the Devil’s piping. In my wrath I rushed among them, and tore the mask from the Devil’s head, and then they overbore me and I lost my senses. When I wrestled with them I wrestled with flesh and blood — perishing men and women rapt in a lust of evil.”

He stopped, and Isobel’s eyes did not meet his. “Keep us a’!” she moaned.

“These men and women were, I firmly believe, my own parishioners.”

“It canna be,” the old woman croaked. “Ye werena yoursel’, Mr. David, sir. . . . Ye were clean fey wi’ the blackness o’ the Wud and the mune and the wanchancy hour. Ye saw ferlies [marvels], but they werena flesh and bluid, sir. . . . ”

“I saw the bodies of men and women in Woodilee who have sold their souls to damnation. Isobel Veitch, as your master and your minister, I charge you, as you will answer before the Judgment Seat, what know you of the accursed thing in this parish?”

“Me!” she cried. “Me! I ken nocht. Me and my man aye keepit clear o’ the Wud.”

“Which is to say that there were others in Woodilee who did not. Answer me, woman, as you hope for salvation. The sin of witchcraft is rampant here, and I will not rest till I have rooted it out. Who are those in Woodilee who keep tryst with the Devil?”

“How suld I ken? Oh, sir, I pray ye to speir nae mair questions. Woodilee has aye been kenned for a queer bit, lappit in the muckle Wud, but the guilty aye come by an ill end. There’s been mair witches howkit out o’ Woodilee and brunt than in ony ither parochine on the Water o’ Aller. Trust to your graund Gospel preachin’, Mr. David, to wyse folk a better gait, for if ye start speirin’ about the Wud ye’ll stir up a byke that will sting ye sair. As my faither used to say, him that spits against the wind spits in his ain face. Trust to conviction o’ sin bringin’ evildoers to repentance, as honest Mr. Macmichael did afore ye.”

“Did Mr. Macmichael know of this wickedness?”

“I canna tell. Nae doot he had a glimmerin’. But he was a quiet body wha keepit to the roads and his ain fireside, and wasna like yoursel’, aye ryngin’ the country like a moss-trooper. . . . Be content, sir, to let sleepin’ tykes lie till ye can catch them rauvagin’. Ye’ve a congregation o’ douce eident folk, and I’se warrant ye’ll lead them intil the straucht and narrow way. Maybe the warst’s no as ill as ye think. Maybe it’s just a sma’ backslidin’ in them that’s pilgrims to Sion. They’re weel kenned to be sound in doctrine, and there was mair signed the Covenant —”

“Peace,” he cried. “This is rank blasphemy, and a horrid hypocrisy. What care I for lip service when there are professors who are living a lie? Who is there I can trust? The man who is loudest in his profession may be exulting in secret and dreadful evil. He whom I think a saint may be the chief of sinners. Are there no true servants of Christ in Woodilee?”

“Plenty,” said Isobel.

“But who are they? I had thought Richie Smail at the Greenshiel a saint, but am I wrong?”

“Na, na. Ye’re safe wi’ Richie.”

“And yourself, Isobel?”

Colour came into her strained face. “I’m but a broken vessel, but neither my man nor me had ever trokin’s wi’ the Enemy.”

“But there are those to your knowledge who have? I demand from you their names.”

She pursed her lips. “Oh, sir, I ken nocht. What suld a widow~woman, thrang a’ the day in your service, ken o’ the doings in Woodilee?”

“Nevertheless you know something. You have heard rumours. Speak, I command you.”

Her face was drawn with fright, but her mouth was obstinate. “Wha am I to bring a railin’ accusation against onybody, when I have nae certainty of knowledge?”

“You are afraid. In God’s name, what do you fear? There is but the one fear, and that is the vengeance of the Almighty, and your silence puts you in jeopardy of His wrath.”

Nevertheless there was no change in the woman’s face. David saw that her recalcitrance could not be broken.

“Then listen to me, Isobel Veitch. I have had my eyes opened, and I will not rest till I have rooted this evil thing from Woodilee. I will search out and denounce every malefactor, though he were in my own Kirk Session. I will bring against them the terror of God and the arm of the human law. I will lay bare the evil mysteries of the Wood, though I have to hew down every tree with my own hand. In the strength of the Lord I will thresh this parish as corn is threshed, till I have separated the grain from the chaff and given the chaff to the burning. Make you your market for that, Isobel Veitch, and mind that he that is not for me is against me, and that in the day of God’s wrath the slack hand and the silent tongue will not be forgiven.”

The woman shivered and put a hand to her eyes.

“Will ye hae your bite o’ meat, sir?” she quavered.

“I will not break bread till God has given me clearness,” he said sternly; and Isobel, who was in the habit of spinning out her talks with her master till she was driven out, slipped from the room like a discharged prisoner who fears that the Court may change its mind.

David rose next morning after a sleepless night, battered in body, but with some peace of mind, and indeed a comfort which he scarcely dared to confess to himself. He had now a straight course before him. There was an evil thing in the place against which he had declared war, an omnipresent evil, for he did not know who were the guilty. The thing was like the Wood itself, an amorphous shadow clouding the daylight. Gone were the divided counsels, the scruples of conscience. What mattered his doubts about the policy of the Kirk at large when here before his eyes was a conflict of God and Belial? . . . For the first time, too, he could let his mind dwell without scruples upon the girl in the greenwood. The little glen that separated the pines from the oaks and the hazels had become for him the frontier between darkness and light — on the one side the innocency of the world which God had made, on the other the unclean haunts of devilry. . . . And yet he had first met Katrine among the pines. To his horror of the works of darkness was added a bitter sense of sacrilege — that obscene revelry should tread the very turf that her feet had trod.

That afternoon he set out for Chasehope. The matter should be without delay laid before his chief elder, and the monstrous suspicion which lurked at the back of his mind dispelled. He was aware that his face was a spectacle, but it should not be hidden, for it was part of his testimony. But at Chasehope there was no Ephraim Caird. The slatternly wife who met him, old before her time, with a clan of ragged children at her heels, was profuse in regrets. She dusted a settle for him, and offered new milk and a taste of her cheese, but all the time with an obvious discomfort. To think that Ephraim should be away when the minister came up the hill! . . . He had had to ride off that morn to Kirk Aller upon a matter of a bull that Johnnie Davidson had brought from Carlisle — an English bull to improve the breed — and he would not be home till the darkening. The woman was voluble and hearty, but it seemed to David that she protested too much. . . . Was her husband all the while between the blankets in the press-bed?

On his way back, at the turn of the road from the kirkton, he encountered Daft Gibbie. The idiot had throughout the winter been a satellite of the minister, and had had many a meal in the manse kitchen. When they met it was “Eh, my bonny Mr. Sempill,” or “my precious Mr. David,” and then an outpouring of grotesque but complimentary texts. But now the first news he had of Gibbie was a small stone that whizzed past his ear, and when he turned he saw a threatening figure with a face twisted into a demoniac hate. A second stone followed, very wide of the mark, and when David threatened pursuit, the idiot shuffled off, shouting filth over his shoulder. A woman came out of a cottage, and said something to Gibbie which caused him to hold his peace and disappear into a kailyard. . . . But the woman did not look towards the minister, but hurried in again and closed the door. Was the whole parish, thought David, banded in a tacit conspiracy? Was this poor idiot one of the misbegotten things of the Wood?

The next Sabbath, which was the fifth of May, the kirk of Woodilee showed a full congregation. That day, save for infants in arms, there were few absentees. Never had the place been more hushed and expectant. David preached from the text, “Enter into the rock, and hide thee in the dust for fear of the Lord,” and he delivered his soul with a freedom hitherto lacking in his carefully prepared discourses. Not the Boanerges of Bold could have outdone the fiery vigour with which he described how Israel went astray after forbidden gods and how the wrath of the Almighty smote her with death and exile. But when he came to the application, which should have been as a nail fastened in a sure place, he faltered. The faces below him, set, composed, awful in their decency, seemed like a stone wall against which he must beat with feeble hands.

“I have the sure knowledge,” he said, “that there are altars set up to Baal in this very parish, and that this little Israel of ours has its own groves where it worships the gods of the heathen — ay, the very devils from the Pit. Be assured that I will riddle out this evil mystery and drag it into the light of day, and on the priests of Baal in Woodilee, be they libertines or professors, I will call down the terrors of the Most High. I summon now in this place all poor deluded sinners to confession and repentance, for in the strength of the Lord I will go forward, and woe be to those that harden their hearts.”

But his words seemed to be driven back upon him by the steely silence. He saw his elders — the heavy white face of Chasehope, the long sanctimonious jowl of Peter Pennecuik, the impish mouth of Spotswood the miller now composed in an alien gravity, the dark sullenness of Mirehope — they relished his vigour, but their eyes were hard as stones. And the folk behind them, men and women, old and young, were attentively apathetic. There was none of the crying and weeping and the spasms of conviction which had attended the fast-day service of the minister of Bold. Were they a congregation of innocents to whom his summons had no application? Or were they so thirled to their evil-doing that his appeals were no more than an idle wind?

His Session congratulated him on his discourse.

“Ye had a gale on your spirit this day, Mr. Sempill,” said Chasehope. “Yon was a fine waft o’ the Word ye gie’d us, and it’s to be hoped that it will be blessed to many.”

As David looked at the pale cheeks and the red hair of the man he had a sudden assurance. It was a mild day, but Ephraim Caird wore a strip of flannel as if he were nursing a cold. And was there not a discoloration of the skin around his fleshy jaw and a dark bruise below his left ear?

Next day David sought out Amos Ritchie, the smith. He learned that the man was on a job at Nether Windyways, and he watched for him on the hill-road as he returned in the evening. The big loose-limbed figure of Amos, striding down the twilit slopes with his bag of tools slung on his shoulder, was a pleasant sight to eyes that hungered for a friend. For with the smith David had advanced far in friendliness since their partnership in the winter snowstorm. The man was of a high spirit and a complete honesty, and his professions were well behind his practice. Rough of tongue and apt in a quarrel, he had a warmth of heart that did not fail even those he despised. He was no purveyor of edifying speech, but the milk of human kindness ran strong in him. It was a saying in the village that there was “mair comfort in an aith from Amos than a prayer from Peter Pennecuik.”

But on this occasion the smith’s straightforward friendliness seemed to have deserted him. When David appeared before him he looked as if he would fain have avoided the meeting. His eyes were troubled, and he increased the pace of his walk when the minister fell into step beside him.

“How’s the wife?” David asked.

“Fine, sir. Her kist’s stronger, and I’m hopin’ the simmer will pit colour intil her cheek.” But as he spoke his eyes were on a distant hill.

“I want a word with you, Amos. You and I are, I believe, true friends, and I can speak to you as to a brother. I have become aware of a horrid evil in this parish. There is that in the Wood which tempts men and women to abominations. With these eyes of mine I saw it on Beltane’s Eve.”

There was no answer.

“You were in the kirk yesterday, Amos, and you heard my sermon. The decision is on Woodilee to choose whom they will serve. You are my friend, and, apart from certain backslidings, a man of a Christian walk and conversation. I summon you to my aid, and conjure you by Christ who died for you, to tell me what you know of this great sin and who are the sinners.”

Amos came to a standstill. He laid down his tools, and looked the minister in the face.

“Let it alane, sir. I rede ye, let it alane.”

“In the name of God, what folly is this?” David cried. “Are you, too, my own familiar friend, entangled in this wickedness?”

The man’s face crimsoned.

“Deil a haet! Na, na, I never could abide thae trokin’s wi’ the Wud. But oh, Mr. Sempill, ye’re but a callant, and ye kenna the wecht o’ the principalities and poo’ers that are against ye. Hae patience, sir, and gang cannily. Trust in the Word, whilk it is your duty to preach, to bring conviction o’ sin in the Lord’s ain gude time, for if ye’re ettlin’ [intending] to use the arm o’ flesh it will fail ye.”

It was the counsel which Isobel had given, and David’s heart sank. What was it in Woodilee which made honest men silent and craven in the face of proved iniquity?

“Man, Amos,” he cried, “I never thought to get a coward’s counsel from you. Am I to reckon you among my enemies, and among God’s enemies? I tell you I see my duty as clear before me as the Hill of Deer. I must unveil this wickedness and blast its practisers into penitence or I fail in my first duty as the minister of this parish. And from you, my friend, I get only silence and contumacy, and what is worse, the advice of a Laodicean. Alas! that you who have fought stoutly in your country’s battles should be such a poor soldier in God’s battles.”

There was no answer. The two had resumed their walk, and the smith strode at a pace which was almost a run, his eyes steadily averted from his companion.

“This is my last word to you, Amos,” said David, as they reached the turn where the loan ran to the manse. “Wednesday — the day after the morn — is the second Beltane, and I fear that that night there will be further evil in the Wood. I will go there and outface the Devil, but the flesh is weak, and I am one against many, and I would fain have a friend. Will you not bear me company?”

The smith stopped again. “Deil hae me if I gang near the Wud! Na, na, I’ll no pit my heid intil ony sic wull-cat’s hole. And, Mr. Sempill, be you guidit by an aulder man and bide at hame.”

“You are afraid?”

“Ay. I’m feared — but mair for you than for mysel’.”

“You’re like the men of Israel that failed Gideon at the waterside,” David cried angrily as he turned away.

The next two days were spent by the minister in a strange restlessness. He walked each afternoon some violent miles on the hilltops, but for the rest he stayed in the manse, principally in his study. Isobel believed him to be at prayer, and indeed he prayed long and fervently, but he was also busied about other things. Among his belongings was a small-sword, for he had won some skill of fence in Edinburgh, and this he had out and saw to its point and edge. Also he read much in books which were not divinity, for he felt himself a soldier, and would brace his spirit with martial tales. With Isobel he exchanged no word save commonplaces, and the old woman, who had the air of a scolded child, showed no desire to talk. His meals were set before him in silence, and silently the table was cleared. Amos Ritchie came to the manse on some small repairing job, and he too seemed to be anxious to get his work done and leave. David saw him arrive as he set out for a walk, and when he returned the shoulders of the smith were disappearing past the stable end.

Wednesday evening came, an evening of mellow light and a quiet sunset, and after his early supper David retired to his study to prepare himself for his task. He had already written out an account of what he had seen in the Wood and of what he proposed to do, and this he signed and directed under cover to Mr. Fordyce at Cauldshaw. Whatever mischance befell him, he had left a record. He had also written a letter to his father, setting forth what, in the event of his death, was to be the destination of his worldly goods. Then on his knees he remained for a while in prayer.

The clock struck nine, and he arose to begin his journey, strapping the sword to his middle, and taking also a great stick which the shepherd of the Greenshiel had made for him. The moon would rise late, and there was ample time.

But he found that the door of his study would not open. It had no lock, and had hung on a light hasp, but now it seemed to have bolts and bars. It was a massive thing of oak, and when he shook it it did not yield.

He shouted for Isobel, but there was no reply. Then he assaulted it furiously with knees and feet and shoulder, but it did not give. There was no hope from the window, which was a small square through which a child could not have crept.

Further attacks on the door followed, and futile shouting. By the time the late light had faded from the little window David had acknowledged the fact that he was imprisoned, and his first fury had ebbed from sheer bodily fatigue. But the clock had struck one before he attempted to make a bed on the floor, with for pillow a bag of chaff which Isobel had placed there for a winter footstool, and the dawn was in the eastern sky before he slept.

He was awakened by Isobel in the doorway.

“Peety on us,” she wailed, “that sic a thing suld hae come to this hoose! Hae ye spent the nicht in this cauld chamber and no in your bed? The wyte’s [blame] on me, for I got Amos Ritchie yestereen to put a bar on the door, for there’s walth of guid books here and I wad like to steek the place when ye’re awa’ to the hills and me maybe in the kitchen. I maun hae steekit it to see if it wad wark, no kennin’ ye were in inside. And syne I gaed doun to my gude~brither’s to speir after his bairn, and I was late in getting back, and, thinks I, the minister will be in his bed and I’ll awa’ to mine. Puir man, ye’ll be as stiff as a wand, and ye’ll maybe hae got your death o’ cauld. . . . See and I’ll get ye a het drink, and your parritch’s on the boil. . . . Wae’s me that I didn’ tak’ a thocht . . . ”

“Silence, woman, and do not cumber your soul with lies.” David’s white face as he strode from the room did more than his words to cut short Isobel’s laments.

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