Witch Wood, by John Buchan

Chapter 8

The Second Blast

On the following Sabbath the minister’s text was, “When the light within you is darkness, how great is that darkness!” This time there was no faltering in the application. The congregation, men and women, were arraigned at the bar as sinners by deed or by connivance, and he had an audience hushed not in the ordinary Sabbath decorum, but in a fearful apprehension. Every moment he seemed to be about to name the sinner, and if he did not single out persons he made it blindingly clear that it was not for lack of knowledge. Never had he preached with greater freedom, never had passion so trembled in each sentence. Words seemed to be given him, stinging, unforgettable words that must flay the souls of the guilty. “Blinded self-deceivers,” he cried, “you think you can tamper with devilry and yet keep your interest in Christ. You are set up with covenants, public and private, but I tell you that your covenant is with Death and Hell. The man who believes he is elected into salvation, and thinks that thereby he has liberty to transgress and that his transgressions will be forgiven him, has sinned against the Holy Ghost — that sin for which there is no forgiveness.” He declared that till there was a general confession and repentance there would be no Communion in the parish of Woodilee, for those who sat down at the Lord’s Table would be eating and drinking damnation to themselves. . . . But at the end he broke down. With tears in his eyes and a sob in his voice he besought a people whom he loved to abase themselves before the Mercy Seat. “You poor folk,” he cried, “with your little dark day of life, with your few years of toil and cold and hunger before the grave, what have you if you have not Christ?” He was moved with an ecstasy of pity, and told them, like the Apostle, that if he could but save their souls, he was willing that his own should be cast away.

Not the oldest remembered such a sermon in the kirk of Woodilee, and the fame of it was soon to go abroad in the countryside. The place emptied in a strange silence, as if the congregation went on tiptoe, and men and women did not look at each other till they were outside the kirkyard gates. The elders did not await the minister in the session-house, and as David walked the hundred yards to the manse he saw what looked like the back of Peter Pennecuik, crouching behind a turf dyke to avoid a meeting.

These were days of loneliness and misery for the minister of Woodilee. He saw himself solitary among enemies, for even those whom he thought his friends had failed him. It was clear that Amos Ritchie had conspired with Isobel to imprison him in his study on the eve of the second Beltane, and though their motive was doubtless affection it but emphasized the hopelessness of his task. He had to bring conviction of sin into a parish where even the innocent were ready to cumber his arm. These honest creatures feared for him — what? Anger would choke him at the thought of such contempt for his sacred mission, and then awe would take its place, awe at the immensity of the evil with which he fought. “Principalities and powers,” Amos had said — yes, the Powers of the Air and the Principalities of Darkness. He had no doubt that the Devil and his myrmidons were present in the Wood in bodily form, mingling with the worshippers, and that the tongues which he had heard were in very truth mutterings of the lost. There were times when ordinary human fear loosened his knees, and he longed to flee from the parish as from a place accursed. But his courage would return, and his faith, for he knew that the armies of Heaven were on his side, and wrath would cast out fear, wrath and horror at the seducers of his flock. Nevertheless in these days his nerves were frayed, he lay awake of nights listening anxiously for noises without, and he would awake suddenly in the sweat of a nameless terror.

But his chief burden was that he did not know how to shape his course. The pulpit rang with his denunciations, but there was no response; no stricken Nicodemus came to him by night. On the roads and at the house-doors people avoided his eyes. There were no more stones from Daft Gibbie — indeed Gibbie had resumed his fawning friendliness — but none waited to speak a word with him. Isobel had recovered her cheerfulness, and sought to atone for past misconduct by an assiduous attention to his comforts, but Amos Ritchie shunned him. And the children, too, who had been his chief allies. Perhaps their parents had warned them, for a group would scatter when he came near, and once when, coming up behind him, he laid a kindly hand on a boy’s head, the child burst into tears and fled. What was the ‘fama’ of the minister which had been put about in Woodilee?

The worst of it was that he could contrive no plan of campaign. Evidence which was overwhelming to his own mind would not convince the Presbytery or the Sheriff. He could not bring a reasoned charge against any man or woman in the parish. As the days passed he began to sort out his flock in his mind as the guilty and the abettors. Some were innocent enough, save for the sin of apathy; but others he could believe to have shared in the midnight debauches — heavy-browed, sensual youths, women with shifty eyes, girls high-coloured and over-blown, whose sidelong glances seemed to hint at secrets, old wives, too, whose wild laughter he heard at cottage doors. But of one, his first certainty was giving way to doubt. Ephraim Caird’s white face had got a wholesome tan from the summer sun, and he alone in the parish seemed to seek out the minister. He gave him a cheerful greeting when they met, spoke wisely of parish matters, had a word of humble commendation for the Sabbath discourses. “It’s gaun to be a braw year for the aits,” he said, “gin the weather hauds, and the lambs are the best I’ve yet seen on Chasehope hill. Let us hope, sir, that the guid seed ye’ve sown will come to as bountiful a hairst.” The words were so simply spoken that they seemed no hypocrisy.

A plan of campaign! On that David could get no clearness, and the anxiety was with him at bed and board. He shrank from confessing himself to his brother-ministers, for what could they do to help him? Kirk Aller would pooh-pooh the whole thing, since Woodilee had been so forward in signing the Covenant. Bold would no doubt believe, but his remedy would be only a stiffer draught of doctrine. Even Mr. Fordyce at Cauldshaw seemed a broken reed, for Mr. Fordyce was an ailing saint, and this task was for the church militant. No, he must fight his battles alone, and trust to God to send him allies. He wanted men of violence, who would fight not with words but with deeds, Israelitish prophets who with their own hands cut down groves and uprooted altars and hewed Agag in pieces. And where would he find them in a countryside where the good were timid as sheep and their pastors like loud voices in a fog?

June was a month of hot suns and clear skies, when the hills were bone-dry and the deepest flowe-moss could be safely passed. It was weather for the high tops, and one afternoon David, walking off his restlessness on the Rood uplands, stumbled unexpectedly on a friend. For at the head of the glen where the drove-road crosses from Clyde to Aller, he fell in with the farmer of Reiverslaw leading his horse up a steep patch of screes.

This man, Andrew Shillinglaw, was something of a mystery both to parish and minister. He was a long lean fellow of some forty years, black-haired, black-bearded, whose sullen face was redeemed by a humorous mouth, so that the impression was of a genial ferocity. He was reputed the most skilful farmer in the place, and some held him a rival in worldly wealth to the miller, but beyond the fact that he had in Reiverslaw the best of the hill farms, there was no clue to his prosperity. He had the only good riding~horse in Woodilee, and was a notable figure on the roads, for he travelled the country like a packman. For weeks on end he would be away from home, and he was heard of in Galloway and the west and as far south as the Border, so that speculation about his doings became a favourite pastime among his neighbours. He neither sold nor bought in the parish, and he kept his own counsel, but his profession was clear enough had there been eyes to see. For he was dealer and middleman as well as farmer, and in a day when stock and produce scarcely moved beyond parish bounds, he sold and bought in outlying markets. In a district of home-keepers he was the sole traveller.

Few liked him, for there was always an undertone of satire in his speech. But all feared him, for his temper was on a hair-trigger. Drink made him quarrelsome, and the spence at Lucky Weir’s had seen some ugly business, since with him blow followed fast on word. Three years before he had buried his wife, there were no children, and he lived at Reiverslaw with an aged cousin for housekeeper, who was half blind and wholly deaf. His attendance at the kirk was far from exemplary; in winter there were the drifts and the full bogs to detain him, and in summer he was as often as not on his travels. The Session, who did not love him, had talked of citing him to appear before them, but in the end they seemed to shrink from belling so formidable a cat.

At the head of the little pass, which in that country is called a “slack,” he halted and let David approach him.

“A guid day to ye, sir,” he cried. “We’ll let Bess get her wind, for it’s a lang gait frae Crawfordjohn. I rade ower yestereen to see the sma’ Cumberland sheep that the Lowther herds are trying on yon hills. I hae nae great broo o’ them. They’ll maybe dae on yon green braes where the bite is short, but they’re nae use for a heather country. . . . Sit ye doun, sir. What brings ye sae far ower the tops? Ye werena ettlin’ to gie me a ca’ in at Reiverslaw?”

David gladly stretched himself on the bent beside him. The man seemed willing to talk, and of late he had had little speech with his fellows.

“I came here for the caller air,” he said, “and to drive ill humours from body and mind. There are whiles when I cannot draw breath in Woodilee.”

“Ay,” said the man. “Ay! Just so.” He pursed his lips and looked at the minister under half-shut eyes.

“Were you born in this parish?” David asked.

“Na, na. Far frae that. I’m but an incomer, though I’ve had the tack o’ Reiverslaw for a dizzen years. My father, honest man, was frae the Glenkens, and my mither cam’ frae the Cairn side. I was born at a bit they ca’ Dunscore, but I was a stirrin’ lad in my young days and I’ve traivelled the feck o’ the Lawlands, frae the Forth to the Solway. But now I’ve got my hinderlands doun in Woodilee, and it’s like I’ll lay my banes here.”

The man spoke in a different voice from the people of the place, and to David he seemed as one detached from the countryside, sharing neither its interests nor affections. As he looked at him, sprawling in the heather bush with one foot on his horse’s bridle, he had a sense of something assured and resolute and not unfriendly.

“Ye’re an incomer like mysel’, sir,” Reiverslaw said after a pause. “What think ye o’ Woodilee?”

“I think that the Devil has chosen this miserable parish for his own.”

“Ay. . . . Well, I wadna say ye were wrang. I jaloused [guessed] frae your last discourse that ye were perplexed wi’ the Enemy. And they tell me that ye’ve stirred up an unco byke against ye.”

“Are you one of them?” David asked.

“No me. If there’s fechtin’ to be done, I’m on your side. I aye likit a bauld man, and it’s a question, sir, if ye ken yoursel’ how bauld ye are when ye offer to drive the Deil frae Woodilee.”

David had got to his feet, for these were the first words of sympathy he had had.

“Andrew Shillinglaw, I command you to tell me if you have kept yourself clean from this mystery of evil which scourges the parish.”

The man still sprawled on the ground, and the face he turned to the minister was twisted in a grim humour.

“Ay. I’ll swear ony aith ye like. I’ll no deny my backslidin’s, and, as ye may ken, my walk and conversation’s no to boast o’. But as sure as God made me, I wad burn off my richt hand in the fire afore I wad file mysel’ wi’ the Babylonish abominations o’ the Wud. I whiles drink a stoup ower muckle, and I whiles gie a waur straik than I ettle when my bluid’s het, but these are honest stumblin’s whilk I hope the Lord will forgie. But for yon —” and he spat viciously.

“Then, if you are yourself clean from this evil, tell me what you know of it, and who are its chief professors.”

“That’s easy speirin’ [asking], but ill to answer. How suld I ken the covens that rampage in the Wud? I bide cheek by jowl wi’ the muckle black thing, and often I wish it was a field o’ strae in a dry back-end so that I could set fire to it and see it burn frae Reiverslaw to Windyways, and frae Woodilee to the Aller side. But I’ve never entered the place in mirk or licht, for my wark’s wi’ sheep, and the honest beasts will no gang near it.”

“But you must have heard . . . ”

“I’ve heard nocht. I have maybe guessed, but it’s no like I wad hear a cheep. I never gang near the clachan except to kirk or to Lucky Weir’s, and the Woodilee folk are pawky bodies even when they’re fou, and ony way I’m nae clatter-vengeance to be clypin’ wi’ auld wives at the roadside. But I’ve my ain notion o’ what’s gaun on, and I can tell ye, sir, it’s gaun on in mony anither godly parochine in this kingdom o’ Scotland, and it’s been gaun on for hundreds o’ years, long afore John Knox dang doun the Pape. But it’s gotten a braw new tack in these days o’ reformed and covenantit kirks. What do your Presbytries and Assemblies or your godly ministers ken o’ the things that are done in the mirk? . . . What do they ken o’ the corps in the kirkyairds buried o’ their ain wull wi’ their faces downwards? . . . They set up what they ca’ their discipline, and they lowse the terrors o’ Hell on sma’ fauts like an aith, or profane talk on the Sabbath, or giein’ the kirk the go-by, and they hale to the cutty-stool ilka lass that’s ower kind to her joe. And what’s the upshot? They drive the folk to their auld ways and turn them intil hypocrites as weel as sinners.”

“Hush, man!” said the scandalized David. “That is impious talk.”

“It’s true a’ the same, though it’s maybe no for a minister’s lugs. The Kirk is set against witchcraft, and every wee while a daft auld wife is brunt. But, God help us, that’s but the froth on the pat. Na, na, Mr. Sempill. If you’re lookin’ to get to grips wi’ the Adversary, it’s no the feckless camsteery lad ye maun seek that likes a randan, or the bit lassie that’s ower fond to wait for the Kirk’s blessin’, or the grannie that swears she rade to France on a kail-runt. It’s the dacent body that sits and granes aneath the pu’pit, and the fosy professor that wags his pow and deplores the wickedness o’ the land. — Yon’s the true warlocks. There’s saunts in Scotland, the Lord kens and I ken mysel’, but there’s some that hae the name o’ saunts that wad make the Deil spew.”

Reiverslaw had risen, and in his face was such a flame of fierce honesty that David’s heart kindled. He had found an ally.

“Give me names,” he cried. “I will denounce the sinner, though he were one of my own elders.”

“I speak nae names. I have nae proof. But ye’ve seen yoursel’. They tell me ye broke in on the coven at their wark.”

“I had but a glisk of them, before they beat the senses out of me. But I intend to go back to the Wood, and this time I shall not fail.”

“Ay. Ye’ve a stout heart, Mr. Sempill.”

“But I must have help. Out of the mouths of witnesses I must establish the truth, and the innocent in Woodilee are very fearful. I have nowhere to look but to you. Will you come with me when I return to the Wood?”

“I’ll no say that, for there’s maybe better ways o’ guidin’ it. But this I will say — I’ll stand by ye; for may the Deil flee awa’ wi’ me or I see a guid man beat. There’s my hand on’t. . . . And now I maun be takin’ the road again. Come na near the Reiverslaw, sir, for that would set the bodies talkin’. If ye want word wi’ me, tell Richie Smail at the Greenshiel.”

The knowledge that he had found a friend lightened David’s heavy preoccupation of mind. Athanasius now was not alone against the world, and his path was not towards martyrdom but to victory. He walked with a more assured step and turned a bolder face to the furtive hostility of the parish. When he met Amos Ritchie he looked on him not in reproach but in defiance. His sermons were now less appeals than challenges, as of one whose course was proclaimed and whose loins were girded.

To his consternation he found that he now sat very loose in his devotion to the Kirk. The profession of religion was not the same thing as godliness, and he was coming to doubt whether the insistence upon minute conformities of outward conduct and the hair-splitting doctrines were not devices of Satan to entangle souls. The phrases of piety, unctuously delivered, made him shudder as at a blasphemy. The fact that his only supporter was one looked askance at by strict professors confirmed his shrinking. Had not Christ set the publican and the sinner above the Pharisee?

One consequence of his new mood was that his thoughts turned again to the girl in Paradise. In his season of desolation he had not dared to think of her; she belonged to a world of light, and had no part in his perplexities. To let her image fill his memory seemed sacrilege, when that memory held so many foul shadows. But as the skies cleared for him her figure appeared again in the sunlight and he did not banish it, for it was she who was the extreme opposite of the horror of the Wood — she and her bright domain of oaks and hazels. He would go again to Paradise for his soul’s comfort.

He chose a day when he was certain she would be there. There was a week of fiery weather — moist heat and heavy skies and flying thunderstorms, and after it came a spell of long bright days, when the sunshine had a dry tonic in it, and the afternoons were mellow and golden. On one such afternoon he crossed the Hill of Deer and entered the glen which divided the pines from the hazels.

Midsummer had changed the place. The burn-side turf was all thyme and eyebright and milkwort, with the stars of the grass of Parnassus in the wet places. The water was clear and small, and the cascades fell in a tinkling silver. He had no doubts as to his road now. Paradise was among the hazels, but one could find it only by descending the glen to where the pines of the Wood began and then turning to the right towards the Greenshiel.

Presently the pines in a sombre regiment rose on the steep to the left. He looked at the beginning of the Wood with an awe which had now no fear in it. The place was hateful, but it could not daunt him. It was the battleground to which he was called. . . . On the edge of the trees was a great mass of dark foxgloves, the colour of blood, and they seemed to make a blood-trail from the sunlight into the gloom.

He turned up the right bank, and through hazel copses and glades, breast-high with bracken, he made his way as if by instinct. He found the shallow cup lined with birches and the blossoming rowans, and as he brushed through the covert he saw the girl sitting on the greensward by the well.

Motionless he watched her for a little, while his heart played strange pranks. She had a basket beside her full of flowers, and she was reading in a book. . . . She laid down the book, and shook her curls and dabbled her fingers in the water. She sang as she dabbled, low and clear in snatches, a song which he was to remember to his dying day:

“There’s comfort for the comfortless,
And honey for the bee,
And there’s nane for me but you, my love,
And there’s nane for you but me.”

She crooned the verse twice, broke off to watch a ring-ouzel, and then sang again:

“It’s love for love that I have got,
And love for love again,
So turn your high horse heid about
And we will ride for hame, my love,
And we will ride for hame.”

He would fain have lingered and watched her, but he felt like an eavesdropper on her privacy. So “Mistress Katrine!” he cried softly, and “Mistress Katrine” a second time.

She sprang to the alert like a bird. Her face, when she saw him, showed no welcome.

“I give you good-day, sir,” she said. “Have you maybe lost your road?”

“I am seeking Paradise,” he replied.

“It is the quest of all mortals, they tell me. But the ministers say it is not to be found on earth.”

“I was seeking the earthly one to which you yourself first led me.”

“You entered then by my invitation, but I do not think I bade you come again.”

“Then I beg for admission, mistress, for indeed I have sore need of Paradise.”

She looked at him curiously. “You look older — and sadder. I have not been to your kirk, but they tell me that you are scorching the souls of your folk with your terrors.”

“Would to God I could scorch them into salvation! . . . I have been in dire straits, Mistress Katrine. For I came again to find Paradise and I found it not, but stumbled into Hell.”

The girl looked at him with compassionate eyes.

“You may sit down in Paradise,” she said. “I permit you. And I will give you some of my wild strawberries. Tell me what has troubled you.”

He told her of the doings of Beltane Eve, stumblingly, with many omissions. He told her of his strife with his parishioners, of his loneliness, of the mission to which he was vowed. “I am resolved,” he said, “that though I go on alone I will not fail in courage. Your Montrose’s comfort is mine — that the arm of the Lord is not shortened.”

The girl brooded.

“Did you come here to find me?”

“I had a conviction that you would be in Paradise. This is no tale for a maid’s ear, but I came here to warn you, mistress. The long glen that runs down to the Rood Mill is a frontier-line, which if you pass you are in the land of darkness. I found you first among the pines, and I beseech you go not again among them, though it were at high noon, for yon Wood is accursed.”

She nodded. “I felt it too. When spring was passing I felt a gloom come over me as I walked there, and one day a terror seized me and I ran and ran till I was among the hazels. I cannot bear even to be in sight of the dark trees. You say that there is witchcraft there.” She lowered her voice and her eyes were solemn. “What is this witchcraft?”

“I cannot tell, save that it is the nethermost works of darkness, and that it has seduced the hearts of my unhappy people. . . . God help me, but I have seen with my eyes what I cannot forget. . . . There is no smooth ministry for me, for now I am a soldier of Christ and must be fighting till I have got the victory.”

“And you are alone?”

“I have one who will stand by me.” And he told her of Reiverslaw.

“Nay, you have another,” she cried. “You have me for a friend, and you have this greenwood for a sanctuary. If I cannot fight by your side, you will know that I am here and that I am wishing you well. See, I make you free of Paradise. It is yours now, as well as mine.” She held out her hand.

He took off his hat.

“You were singing,” he said, “and your song was true, for here’s ‘comfort for the comfortless.’ You have put steel into my bones, Mistress Katrine. If I can come here and speak with you at times, it will be like the water beside the gate of Bethlehem to King David. . . . I will know when you are here without your sending me word.”

“Then there is witchcraft in the greenwood,” she said, smiling gravely, “for I, too, knew that you were coming to-day before you came.”

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