Witch Wood, by John Buchan

Chapter 10

What the Moon Saw

There was great heat at the end of July — sultry, thunderous weather, when the hills drowsed under a haze and the sun’s beams seemed to be the more torrid for the screen of vapour through which they fell. The heavens were banking up for the Lammas rains. But each evening the skies cleared, and the night was an amethyst dome sprinkled with stars.

David made a great to-do about his visit to Newbiggin. On the Monday morning he announced it to Isobel, and in an hour the word had gone through the village. His housekeeper seemed to receive the news with relief. “Blithe I am to hear it, sir. Folk suld whiles change their ground like bestial, and ye’ve been ower lang tethered to this parochine. Newbiggin will be a caller bit in this lown weather, and while ye’re awa’ I’ll get your chamber cleaned and the stairs washed doun. Dinna haste to come back, for I’ll no look for ye or Setterday.”

He set off on the Tuesday after midday, and there were many eyes in Woodilee to mark his going. That night he duly slept at Newbiggin, but the next day, which was Lammas Eve, he left his cousin’s house and rode up Clyde water into the farthest moors. It was a wide circuit, which brought him in the afternoon to the uplands which separate Rood from Annan. All day he had been out of sight of human dwelling, and the first he saw was in the dusk, when he descended upon the tower of Calidon by the glen of the Calidon burn. At Calidon he left his horse with the grieve, promising to return for it on the morrow, and, with one look at the lit windows of the tower, he set out on foot to ford the Rood. About nine o’clock in the mulberry gloaming he reached the cottage of the Greenshiel.

Three figures greeted him there. One was the herd of the outer hirsel, Richie Smail; another was Rab Prentice, the herd of the home hirsel, who sat on the turf deas at the cottage-end with his crutch beside him; the third was Reiverslaw himself, who was also seated, smoking a pipe of tobacco.

“Ye’re in braw time, Mr. Sempill,” said the last. “Did ye pass ony folk on the road?”

“I have seen no man since the morning, except the Calidon grieve half an hour syne.”

“And that’s just as weel. Richie, kindle the cruisie, for our job is better done indoors.”

The feeble light in the hut revealed a curious assembly. The two shepherds had faces of portentous gravity, and their twitching mouths and restless eyes were proof of an extreme discomfort. Reiverslaw wore his usual frieze small-clothes and boot-hose, but he had no coat, though he had slung on his arm what might have been that garment. He flung this on the settle. “It’s ower het to wear that muckle maud till the time comes. We maun get to business, Mr. Sempill, for you should be on the road afore the moon rises. We’re here to get our plan strauchtit oot and there’s jimp [scarcely] time. Rab Prentice, ye’ve been twice wi’ me to Chasehope in the last se’en days. Ye mind the braw red cock the wife has gotten?”

“Fine,” said the shepherd.

“There’s no sic another fowl in the countryside?”

“That I’ll engage.”

“Therefore if I show ye the morn a pluckin’ o’ red feathers, ye’ll jalouse it’s the Chasehope cock?”

“Ay. But I’m no gaun intil the Wud . . . not even in braid daylicht.”

“If I bid ye, ye’ll gang, Rab Prentice, though I suld carry ye myself. . . . Now, secondly, as the ministers say. Do ye see this bottle? Smell it, a’ three of ye. That’s a smell ye never fand afore? It’s what they call oil of hennyseed, and I got it frae a horse-doctor at Carlisle. I’ll wager there’s no anither phial o’ the same between here and Embro. It’s a smell ye’ll no sune forget. Pit a dab on yer sleeves to remind ye o’t. If the three o’ us gangs to Chasehope the morn and finds Chasehope’s breeks and Chasehope’s sark stinkin’ o’ this oil, ye’ll be able to swear to it, and to swear that I showed it you this verra nicht and that ye kenned the smell when ye fand it again.”

The two men agreed, sniffing the drop on their sleeve.

“Thirdly,” said Reiverslaw, “I’m gaun to turn mysel’ intil a guisyard.”

He picked up the thing he had been carrying, and revealed it as a cloak of deerskins which fitted like a loose jerkin. Over his head he drew a cap of skins with slits for his eyes, a roughly-shaped nozzle like a deer’s, and on the top the horns of a goat.

“Save us a’!” Richie cried, as he saw his master stand up, his lean, active body surmounted by a beast’s head. “Save us a’, ye’re no gaun to tamper wi’ the accursed thing?”

“That’s what I ettle, but the intention is guid, and it’s by our intentions we’ll be judged, as Mr. Sempill will tell ye. Look at me, ye daft auld fules, for there’s naething to be feared o’. I’m for the Wud the nicht, and it’s my purpose to bide in cover till the folk are half dementit, and syne, when their een are blind, to join them. I’ve a notion that there will be some wark wi’ the red cock, and I’d like a feather or twa as a keepsake. And I’ve a sort of notion that my auld friend Chasehope will be there; so as a token o’ friendship I’ll pit saut on his tail — whilk means that if I get the chance I’ll anoint his dowp wi’ the hennyseed. Now, you twa, take tent and listen to me. Ye will swear that I telled ye what I have telled ye, and that ye saw me at the Greenshiel dressed up like a merry-andrew. The horns suld hae been a stag’s, but I was feared o’ hankin’ them in the busses, so the puir auld Reiverslaw billy-goat had to dee.”

He was a crazy sight with the goat’s head on him, and a formidable sight without it, for as he stood in that dusk beside two men bent with labour, the one maimed and the other past the allotted span of human years, David had an impression of something desperate and fearless and light-hearted. The shepherds were clearly torn between loyalty and terror, and he himself, while firm enough in his resolve, had to keep his thoughts battened down to prevent his knees knocking. But Reiverslaw seemed to have no fears. He had set about the thing as cannily as if he were selling sheep at Lockerbie fair, and now, with a venture before him which not two other men in Scotland would have contemplated, he was notably the least embarrassed of the party.

“I saw three pyets [magpies] flee intil the Wud this morning,” said Prentice, “and but ane cam’ back. That’s an unco freit [omen] for the beginnin’ o’t!”

“Haud your tongue, ye auld wife,” said Reiverslaw. “Freits fa’ to them that fear them, and I’m no gaun to fash my heid about twa jauds o’ birds. . . . ”

“I had a vision yestereen,” Richie put in. “I saw the haill land o’ Scotland like a field o’ aits, white until the harvest, the haill land frae John o’ Groats to Galloway, a’ but the parish o’ Woodilee, whilk was unplewed and rough wi’ briars and thrissles. An’ says I to mysel’, ‘Whatever place is yon?’ and says a voice to me, ‘That’s what we ca’ the Deil’s Baulk in the gospel field o’ Scotland.’”

“And a very true observe, for Deil’s Baulk is just what the Wud is, and it’s for us to pit a plew intill’t and mak’ a fire o’ the wastry. Set bite and sup afore the minister, Richie.”

The shepherd produced some oatcakes, of which David ate only a mouthful, for though he had had no food since morning, his throat was dry and his tongue like a stick. He drank, however, a pint of buttermilk.

“Kirn-milk for you?” the host asked of Reiverslaw. “I hae nae yill, but Rab has brocht a flask o’ aquavitty ye gied him at the lambin’.”

“I’ll hae spring water. Nae strong drink for me, for this nicht I’m like Jonadab the son of Rechab. . . . Are ye ready, Mr. Sempill? Ye maun start first, for ye’ve a tree to speel. There’s nae hurry for me till the Deil begins his pipin’.”

“You are either strong in the faith, or of a very stout heart,” said David admiringly.

“No as strong as I might be,” was the answer. “Afore we part, wad it no be weel for you to pit up a prayer?”

The minister prayed — and it was as if he confessed alone to his God in his closet. He himself was strengthened by it, and the comfort of Richie and Rab was visibly enlarged. But Reiverslaw stood through the devotions in no very devout position, and from him came none of the responses which flowed from the others. Before the “Amen” he had his goat-cap on, and was peering at the rising moon. He made his staff sing as he whirled it.

David took his strange confederate’s hand, and his own shook. Reiverslaw noted his trepidation.

“Fear nocht, sir. It’ll gang ill wi’ the wirriecow gin we meet him. But what brocht a man o’ peace like you into this tuilzie?”

“Jealousy for the honour of my God. And you? For it is less your quarrel than mine.”

The man grinned. “Write it down that Andra Shillinglaw couldna see an honest man beat, and that he didna like kail-worms.”

David had many times gone over in his mind the route to the glade of the altar, and had compared notes with Reiverslaw that very night. The distance was less than three miles, and he had a couple of hours to reach the place and still be in position well before midnight. As on all the nights of the past week, the oppressive haze of the day had lifted, and the sky rose to an infinite height, thick studded with stars, for the moon was only new risen. David made his way to the dividing glen between the pines and the hazels in a miserable disquiet. He had lost the first fierce anger which had stiffened him for his frustrated expedition on the eve of the second Beltane, and his tacit ostracism all summer by the folk of Woodilee had engendered a profound self-distrust. Even the thought of Katrine Yester did not nerve him; she belonged to a world separated by impassable gulfs from that black necromancy which he warred against. Nor did the fact that he had an ally comfort him, for Reiverslaw, he greatly feared, fought in his own strength and not in that of the Lord, and in such a strife the arm of flesh could not avail them. As he stumbled through the dark undergrowth David’s lips moved in anxious prayers.

He entered the pines, and, shaping his course by the low line of cliffs, came to the place where he had first met Katrine. Thus far he felt that he was not wholly outside the pale of kindly things. But after that he was in enemy country, and the moon was still too low to give him help. He wasted half an hour in the thickets, till by a strong effort of will he forced himself to take his bearings and remember Reiverslaw’s instructions. He scrambled up hill again till he was in touch with the outcrop of rock, and then suddenly found himself looking down on the glade where stood the altar.

It was very dark, and the stone was only a ghostly blur. But the darkness was a blessing, for the place was not as he had seen it before, and the sight of it did not revive the terrors he had feared. It looked no more than a woodland glade, and the fact that a rabbit scurried from under his feet seemed a friendly omen. On the far side the trees grew thick, and he selected a gnarled Scots fir as his perch for the night. Its trunk, branchless for sixty feet, was too thick to climb, but he found a younger and slimmer tree, up which he could squirm and from its upper branches traverse to the other. He had not tried the game since he was a boy, and at first his legs and arms seemed too feeble; but the exercise warmed him, and after twice sliding back to the ground, he at last reached the umbrella-like spread of the crest. To gain the other tree proved more difficult than he had thought, and he was compelled to let his body swing and make a long stretch with his right arm. But the task was accomplished in the end, and he found himself on a platform of crooked fir boughs, hidden from everything but the stars, and with a view through the gaps of the branches to the glade below him.

He had now a clear sight of the sky. The moon was three-quarters up, and the whole of Melanudrigill, with its slopes and valleys, was washed in silver. He was in it and yet above it and outside it, like a man on a hillside looking into a cleft. He made his body comfortable in a crutch of the tree, and looked down on the stage beneath him. It was now lighting up, and the altar was whitened by a stray moonbeam. For the first time that night he felt his spirits returning. The oppression of the Wood was not realized on this outer shell of it, for here only winged things dwelt, and the unclean things of the dark had no wings.

In this happier mood his eyes sought the whereabouts of Calidon. It was hidden by a ridge, the ridge to the west where lay Paradise. The thought gave him an unreasoning pleasure. He was not cut off from the world of light, for, whatever befell on the earth beneath him, he had but to lift up his eyes and they rested on a happier country.

As the moon rose, the multitudinous little noises of a wood at night were hushed. There was a sleepy muttering of cushats to the south of him, and then, with a clatter which made him jump, the birds rose in a flock and flew across the valley. After that there was no sound until the music began.

There was no fixed moment for its beginning, for it seemed to steal insensibly into the air. And it was scarcely music, but rather a delicate babble of tongues which made a crooning like the low notes of a pipe. The sound was all beneath him near the ground, and gathering from different quarters to one centre. Suddenly, in the midst of it came a sharp liquid note, several times repeated, a note with authority in it like a trumpet, and yet ineffably faint and distant as if it were the echo of an echo. It did not flutter David’s heart, for there was no threat in it, but it had a strange effect upon his mind. For it seemed familiar, and there was that in him which answered it. He felt a boy again, for in the call there was the happy riot and the far horizons of childhood, and the noise of hill winds and burns, and the scent of heather and thyme, and all the unforgotten things of memory.

The silver trumpet did not speak again, but the soft babble was creeping nearer, and suddenly just beneath him it broadened and deepened into the sound of pipes. He looked down and saw that the dance had begun. As before, the piper with his hound mask sat cross-legged beyond the altar, and the dancers revolved widdershins around him. . . .

To his amazement he found himself looking on not in terror, but in curiosity. It was a graver dance than that of Beltane, not the mad riot of the bursting life of spring, but the more sober march of summer and the hot suns bringing on the harvest. . . . Seen from above, the figures were only puppets, moving at the bidding of a lilt that rose and fell like a lost wind. The passion of wrath with which he had watched the former Sabbath had utterly gone from him. He felt a curious pity and friendliness, for there was innocence here, misguided innocence.

“Will this be the way God looks down upon the follies of the world?” he asked himself. What was it that Reiverslaw had said? — If the Kirk confines human nature too strictly, it will break out in secret ways, for men and women are born into a terrestrial world, though they have hopes of Heaven. . . . That was blasphemy, and he knew it, but he did not shudder at it.

How long these gentle dances continued he did not know, for he was in a dream and under the spell of the piping. . . . Then suddenly there came a change. The dancing-floor became dark, and he saw that clouds were coming over the moon. A chill had crept into the air. Lights sprang up out of nowhere, and though the wind had begun to sigh through the trees, he noted that these lights did not flicker. . . . The music stopped, and the dancers crowded together around the altar.

The hound-faced leader stood above them with something in his hand. The mysterious light seemed to burn redly, and he saw that the thing was a bird — a cock which was as scarlet as blood. The altar top was bare, and something bright spurted into the hollow of the stone. From the watchers came a cry which chilled David’s marrow, and he saw that they were on their knees.

The leader was speaking in a high shrill voice like a sleepwalker’s, and David caught but the one word often repeated — Abiron. Every time it was uttered the man dabbled his finger in the blood on the altar and marked a forehead, and as each received the mark he or she fell prostrate on the ground. . . .

There was no innocence now in that spectacle of obscene abasement. Terror entered into David’s soul, and his chief terror was that he had not been afraid before. He had come very near falling himself under the spell.

There followed what seemed to be a roll-call. The leader read names out of a book, and the prostrate figures answered. The names seemed like an idiot’s muttering, not good Scots words, but uncouth gutturals. And always like an undercurrent came the word Abiron.

Then with an unholy cry the whole coven was on its feet. The pipes began again, and music other than pipes, which seemed to soak out of the ground and the adjacent coverts. Gone was every trace of gentleness and innocency. It was witch-music made by the Devil himself on the red-hot chanter-reeds of Hell, and the assembly capered as if their feet were on the lake of burning marl. The Israelitish prophet in David awoke, and he saw it all with clear eyes and horror-stricken soul.

If the Beltane dance had been hideous, this was the very heart of bestial lust. Round and round it swept, a fury and yet an ordered fury, in which madness and obscenity were mingled. He recognized the faces of women, old and young, who sat devoutly beneath him in kirk of a Sabbath. The men were all masked, but he knew that if he could tear off the beast coverings he would see features which were normally composed into a pious decency. Figure would clasp figure and then fling apart, but in each circuit he noted that the dancers kissed some part of the leader’s body, nozzling him like dogs on the roadside.

Up in his tree-top the minister had now an undivided mind. He had the names of several of the females of the coven firm in his memory, and for the men he must trust to Reiverslaw. There were some of the dancers with goat-horns, but as the rout swung round it seemed to him that a new goat-mask had appeared, a taller, wilder figure, who was specially devout in his obeisance before Hound~face. Was it Reiverslaw with his aniseed?

The night had become very dark, and the only light in the glade came from the candles which burned in its hidden hollows. And then suddenly a colder wind blew, and like the burst of a dam came a deluge of rain. The Lammas floods had broken, stealing upon the world, as is their fashion, out of a fair sky.

It seemed to David — and he held it part of the infernal miracle — that the torrent did not quench the lights. In a trice he himself was soaked to the skin, but the candles still burned, though the rain beat on the floor of the glade with a sound like a whip-lash. . . . But it ended the dance. The silver pipe sounded again, and as the wind rose higher and the falling water slanted under it to search out even the bield of the trees, he saw figures moving hurriedly off. The next time he looked down through the spears of rain — for the hidden moon still made a dim brightness in the world — the glade was empty. Above the noise of the storm he thought he heard the strange babble of tongues, but now it was departing to the far corners of the Wood.

He waited for a little and then tried to descend. But he found it harder to get down than to get up, for he could not find the branch by which he had swung himself from the lesser tree, and in the end had to drop a good twenty feet into the bracken, whence he rolled into the empty glade. . . . He scrambled to his feet and made haste to get out of it, but not before he had sniffed the odour of unclean pelts. — And yes — surely that was the stink of Reiverslaw’s aniseed.

He had no difficulty about his homeward course. Most of the way he ran, but fear had completely left his heart. The rain in his face seemed to cleanse and invigorate him. He had looked upon great wickedness, but he had looked down on it, like the Almighty, from above, and it seemed a frail and pitiful thing — a canker to be rooted out, but a thing with no terror for a servant of God. The Devil was but a botcher after all. And then he remembered how the first notes of the music had melted him, and he felt humbled.

Reiverslaw had arrived at the Greenshiel before him. The place was filled with the reek of burning hides, and David saw that the goat~mask and cloak had been laid on the peats. His ally, a weird dripping figure, sat on a stool sipping the aqua vitæ which Rab Prentice had brought with him. He, who had started the night’s venture with such notable sang-froid, was now in a sweat of fright.

“Be thankit ye’re safe,” he stuttered, while the spirits spilled over his beard. “I never thocht to see ye mair, for I never thocht to win out o’ yon awesome place. My legs are a’ gashed and scartit, for I cam’ here through stane and briar like a dementit staig [young horse]. Oh, sir, siccan a sicht for mortal een!”

“Saw ye the Foul Thief?” asked the awed Prentice.

“I saw ane in his image, and I got a drap o’ the red cock’s bluid, and I loupit like the lave, but it wasna wi’ their unholy glee. Sir, I was fair wud wi’ terror — me that am no gien to fear muckle — for I got a cauld grue in my banes and my een turned back in their sockets. I tell ye, I forgot the errand I had come on, I forgot my name and my honest upbringing, and I was like a wean forwandered among bogles. . . . I’ve burnt thae skins, and when I get name I’ll burn every stitch o’ cleading, for the reek o’ the Pit is on it.”

“Did you recognize many?” David asked.

“No me. I had nae een to see wi’. I spun round like a teetotum, and I wadna say but I let out skellochs wi’ the best — may God forgie me!”

“But the oil — the aniseed?”

Reiverslaw held up something which David saw was an empty bottle.

“I didna fail ye there. For the ae man I kenned in the coven was him that piped. When I cam’ near him I felt a stound o’ black hate, and there’s but the ae man on God’s earth that can gar me scunner like yon. So when it was my turn to bow down afore him, he gat mair frae me than a kiss. Unless he burns his breeks this very nicht there’ll be a queer savour aboot the toun o’ Chasehope the morn.”


Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:50