Witch Wood, by John Buchan

Chapter 11

The Minister Girds up His Loins

Next day David returned to the manse in time for the noontide meal. He was greeted by Isobel with a hospitable bustle, in which was apparent a certain relief. She had known of the Lammas festival; she guessed, no doubt, that David too was aware of it, and she evidently took his visit to Newbiggin as a sign that he had at last taken her prudent counsel. But from her master she got no response. When questioned as to the welfare of his kin at Newbiggin he answered in civil monosyllables, ate his dinner in silence, and thereafter secluded himself in his study.

That evening he walked to the Greenshiel, where Reiverslaw and Prentice met him. The former was in an excited state and had clearly been drinking — to the scandal of the two shepherds, who wore portentous faces. Richie Smail had the air of an honest man compelled to walk in abhorred paths; he had been reading his Bible before their arrival, and sat with a finger in the leaves, saying nothing, but now and then lifting puzzled eyes to his master. Prentice’s hard jaw was set, and he swung his crutch as if it had been a pikestaff.

“We were at Chasehope by eleven hours this mornin’,” Reiverslaw announced. “I took Richie and Rab, as I forewarned Ephraim, to have a look at his new tups. But I needna tell you there was nae word of Ephraim. The wife said he was awa’ to Kirk Aller, but she was like a hen on a het girdle a’ the time, and I think we wad hae found him if we had ripit the press-beds. If he was lurking there he maun hae gotten a sair fricht, for I spak’ that loud ye could hae heard me on the tap o’ Chasehope hill.”

“Did you find what you sought?” David asked.

“I fand eneuch.” He drew from a pocket a bunch of feathers. “I got these last nicht in the Wud. Doubtless there’ll be mair in the same place, if they havena been soopit up. But there’s nae red cock the day in the toun o’ Chasehope. I admired the wife’s hens and speired what had become o’ the cock, and was telled that it was deid — chokit last nicht on a grosart. I ken the kind o’ grosart that ended the puir beast.”

“And the aniseed?”

Reiverslaw laughed tipsily.

“We were just in time, sir. The wife had a fire lowin’ in the yaird. ‘What’s burnin’, mistress?’ says I. ‘Just some auld clouts,’ says she. ‘There was a gangrel body sleepit ae nicht in the loft,’ says she, ‘and he left some duds ahint him, as fu’ o’ fleas as a cadger’s bonnet. I’m haein’ them brunt,’ says she, ‘for fear o’ the weans.’ Weel, me and Richie and Rab stood aside the fire, and it loupit as if an oil can had been skailed on it, and the reek that rase frae it was just the reek o’ my wee bottle. Mair nor that, there was a queer smell ayont the hallin — Richie and Rab fand it as weel as me. What name wad ye gie it, Rab?”

“It was the stink o’ the stuff ye showed us in this house last nicht,” said Prentice solemnly.

“Sae muckle for that,” said Reiverslaw. “We’ve proof that the lad in the dowg’s cap was nae ither than him we ken o’. Na, na, I never let on to the wife. I was jokesome and daffin’ wi’ her, and made a great crack o’ the tups, and praised a’ I saw about the toun, and Rab and Richie were as wise as judges. I had a dram inside me, and was just my canty ordinar’. But my een and my nostrils werena idle, and I saw what I’ve telled ye. . . . My heid was in sic a thraw last nicht that I canna sweir wi’ ony certainty to ither faces, though I hae my suspeecions about the weemen. But you, sir, sittin’ aloft on the tree-tap, ye maun hae had a graund view, for there was licht eneuch to read prent.”

“I recognized certain women, to whom I can swear on my oath. About some I dare not be positive, but there were five of whom I have no doubt. There were Jean Morison and her daughter Jess.”

“The folk o’ the Chasehope-fit,” Reiverslaw cried. “Ay, they wad be there. They’ve aye been ill-regarded.”

“And old Alison Geddie in the kirkton.”

“A daft auld wife, that skellochs like a sea-maw!”

“And Eppie Lauder from Mirehope road-end.”

Richie Smail groaned. “The widow of a tried Christian, Mr. Sempill. A dacenter body than Wattie Lauder never walked the roads. It’s terrible to think o’ the Deil’s grip on the household o’ faith.”

“And Bessie Tod from the Mains.”

“Peety on us, but I sat neist her at the March fast-day when Mr. Proudfoot preached, and she was granin’ and greetin’ like a bairn. Ye surely maun be in error, sir. Bessie was never verra strong in the heid, and she hasna the wits for the Deil’s wark!”

“Nevertheless she was there. I am as certain of it as that I was myself in the tree-top. Of others I have suspicions, but of these five I have certainty.”

Reiverslaw rubbed his great hands. “Our business gangs cannily forward. We’ve gotten the names o’ six o’ the coven and can guess at ithers. Man, we’ll hae a riddlin’ in Woodilee that will learn the folk no to be ill bairns. Ye’ll be for namin’ them frae the pu’pit, sir?”

“I must first bring the matter before the Presbytery. I will prepare my dittay, and bring it before Mr. Muirhead of Kirk Aller as the Presbytery’s moderator, and I must be guided by him as to the next step. It is a matter for the courts of the Kirk and presently for the secular law.”

Reiverslaw cried out. “What for maun ye gang near the Presbytery? If ye stir up yon byke ye’ll hae commissioners of justiciary and prickers and the haill clamjamphrie, and in the lang end an auld kimmer or twa will suffer, and the big malefactors will gang scot free. Chasehope’s ower near the lug o’ the law to tak’ ony scaith, and yon’s the kail-worm I wad be at. Be guidit by me, Mr. Sempill, and keep the thing inside the pairish. As the auld saying gangs, bleach your warst hanks in your ain yaird, for I tell ye if the Kirk and the Law hae the redding o’t it’s little justice will be done. Name and upbraid and denounce a’ and sindry, but dinna delate to the Presbytery. A man may like the kirk weel eneuch, and no be aye ridin’ on the riggin’ o’t. . . . I’ll tell ye my way o’t. Now that we ken some o’ the coven, the four o’ us can keep our een open, and watch them as a dowg watches a ratton; and at their next Sabbath, as they ca’ it, we’ll be ready for them. I can get a wheen Moffat drovers that fear neither man nor deil, and aiblins some o’ Laird Hawkshaw’s folk frae Calidon, and we’ll break in on their coven and tear the masks frae the men, and rub their nebs in their ain mire, and dook the lot in the Water o’ Aller. I’ll wager that’s the way to get rid o’ witchcraft frae the parochine, for we’ll mak’ it an unco painfu’ business to tak’ the Wud. A witch or a warlock is a fearsome thing to the mind o’ man, but they’re bye wi’t gin we mak’ them gowks and laughing-stocks.”

The two shepherds stared at the speaker with upbraiding eyes, and David’s face looked as if a blasphemy had been spoken.

“You would fight the Devil in your own carnal strength,” he said sadly. “It’s little you would make of it. You talk as if this wickedness of the Wood were but a natural human prank, when it is black sin that can only be combated by the spirit of God and such weapons as God has expressly ordained. Man, man, Reiverslaw, you’ve but a poor notion of the power of the Adversary. I tell you last night I was trembling like a weaned child before yon blast that blew out of Hell, and you yourself were no better when I found you here. I durstna have entered the Wood except as a soldier of the Lord.”

Reiverslaw laughed.

“I was sair fleyed [frightened], I’ll no deny, but I got a juster view o’ things wi’ the daylicht.”

“It would appear that you got courage also from Lucky Weir.”

“True. I had my mornin’ and my meridian and an orra stoup or twa sinsyne. I’m a man that’s aye been used wi’ a guid allowance o’ liquor. But the drink, if so be ye’re no fou, whiles gi’es ye a great clearness, and I counsel ye, sir, to keep wide o’ the law, whether it be of the Kirk or the State. It’s a kittle thing, and him that invokes it is like to get the redder’s straik [the peacemaker’s blow]. It’s like a horse that flings its heels when ye mount and dings out the rider’s teeth. . . . But hae your ain way o’t, and dinna blame me if it’s a fashious way. There’s me and Rab Prentice and Richie Smail waitin’ to sweir to what’s in our knowledge, and if there’s mair speirin’ to be done in the Wud, I’ll no fail ye. But keep in mind, Mr. Sempill, that I’m a thrang body, and maun be drawin’ my crocks and sellin’ my hog-lambs afore the back-end, and it’s like I’ll hae to traivel to Dumfries, and maybe to Carlisle. Richie will aye hae word o’ my doings, and if ye want me it wad be wise to tell Richie a week afore.”

That night on his return David summoned Isobel to his presence. The housekeeper appeared with a more cheerful countenance than she had worn for weeks, but the minister’s first words solemnized her.

“Isobel Veitch, I asked you a question after Beltane and you refused me an answer. I, your minister, besought your aid as a confessing Christian, and you denied it me. I told you that I would not rest until I had rooted the idolatry of the Wood from this parish. Since then I have not been idle, and I have found men who did not fail me. Three days back I rode to Newbiggin, as I told you, but I returned on Lammas Eve, and on Lammas Eve I was a witness a second time to the abominations of the heathen. Not only myself, but another with me, so that the thing is established out of the mouths of two witnesses, while Robert Prentice and Richard Smail can speak in part to confirm me. Now I have got my tale complete, and it is to the Presbytery that I shall tell it. Will you implement it with such knowledge as you possess, or do you continue stiff in your recusancy?”

The old woman’s eyes opened like an owl’s.

“Wha went with you — wha was sae left to himsel’?” she gasped.

“Andrew Shillinglaw in Reiverslaw. . . . One man and five women stand arraigned on our witness. I will speak their names, and I care not if you put it through the parish, for soon the names will be thundered from the pulpit. The man was Ephraim Caird.”

“I’ll no believe it,” she cried. “Chasehope’s aye been a polished shaft in Christ’s kirk. . . . He’s o’ your ain Session. . . . He cam’ here, ye mind, when ye first broke bread in this house. Ay, and he was here when ye were awa’ at Newbiggin. I was seilin’ the milk when I heard his voice at the door — cam’ here wi’ ane o’ his wife’s skim-milk kebbucks that she kens weel how to mak’, for she’s frae the Wastlands — spoke sae kind and neeborlike, and was speirin’ after the health o’ the gude man my maister . . . Tak’ it back, sir, for ye maun be mistook. Ephraim’s weel kenned for a fair Nathaniel.”

There was no doubt about her honesty, for the mention of Chasehope had staggered her.

“Nevertheless he is a whited sepulchre, painted without, but inside full of bones and rottenness.”

“Oh, sir, bethink ye afore ye mak’ this fearsome accusation. Your een may have played ye fause. And wha in their senses wad lippen to Reiverslaw? A muckle, black-avised, grippy incomer that nae man kens the get o’ . . . sweirs like a dragoon when the maut’s abune the meat. Ye’ll never gang to the Presbytery in siccan company wi’ siccan a tale! And Hirplin’ Rab is a thrawn deevil, though I’ll no deny he hae a gift o’ prayer — and Richie Smail is sair failed in body and mind since last back-end when Mirren dee’d.”

“There are also five women,” David went on. “There are Jean and Jess Morison from Chasehope-foot.”

“Sae that’s where ye get your ill-will at Chasehope — because he’s ower kind to turn twa randies intil the road! I hae nothing to say for the Morisons. They come oot o’ a dirty nest, and they may ride on a saugh ilka nicht to Norroway for a’ I ken.”

“There is Eppie Lauder at Mirehope.”

“Tut, man, as dacent a body as ever boiled sowens. And her man, Wattie, that dee’d in Aprile o’ the year thretty-nine, was weel thocht o’ by a’body. Ye’ve come till a frem’d toun wi’ Eppie.”

“And Alison Geddie.”

“A tongue like a bell-clapper, but ettles nae hairm.”

“Likewise Bessie Tod of the Mains.”

“She’s weak in her mind, sir. Lang syne she had a bairn to a sodger and it dee’d, and she never got ower it. Ye’ll no convince me that there’s ony ill in Bessie forbye the want o’ sense.”

“I have evidence of ill. I accuse, I do not condemn. It is for others to do the judging.”

Isobel’s timidity, which had been notable during the Beltane interview, seemed now to have left her. There was a sincere emotion in her voice.

“I plead wi’ ye, sir, to halt while yet there’s time, and if needs be content yoursel’ wi’ private examination. It’s verra weel for Andra Shillinglaw, that’s but an incomer, and rakes the country gettin’ as he gangs, like a cadger’s powny. But you’re the minister o’ Woodilee, and the fair fame o’ the parochine suld be as dear to you as your ain. If ye tak’ the gait ye speak o’, ye’ll mak’ it a hissing and a reproach in a’ the water of Aller. It’s a quiet bien bit, wi’ douce folk weel agreed, and ye wad mak’ it a desolation, and a’ because some daft lads and a wheen hellicat lassies dance their twasomes in the Wud. It’s no as if they did ill things like garrin’ the kye rin dry and the weans dwine.”

“Then you admit knowledge of the sin?”

“I admit nocht, for I ken nocht. Young folk will be young folk, peety though it be. . . . But for Chasehope and my auld gossip, Eppie Lauder, the man’s gyte that wad chairge them wi’ idolatry — and you can tell that to your drucken Reiverslaw.”

For the first time since he had known her Isobel flung out of the room in a temper.

Next day he sought out Chasehope, and found him alone on the hill. The man greeted him with effusion.

“The Lammas rains is weel-timed this year, Mr. Sempill, nae ragin’ flood, but just eneuch to slocken the ground. I start cuttin’ the bog hay the morn. I heard ye were at Newbiggin, sir, and I trust ye found your friends in guid health. A blaw on the hills yonder is fine for a body after the lown air o’ Woodilee.”

“I returned home on the Lammas Eve. I ask you, Ephraim Caird, as you will answer to your God, where were you in the mirk of that night?”

The heavy face, now brick-red with summer suns, did not change.

“Where suld I be but in my bed? I gaed till’t early, for I had a lang day wi’ the hog-lambs.”

“You know that that is a lie. You were in the Wood, as you were in the Wood at Beltane, dancing away your miserable soul to the Devil’s piping. With my own eyes I saw you.”

The astonishment of Chasehope was admirably simulated.

“Are ye daft, sir? Are ye gane clean gyte? Ye’re no weel, Mr. Sempill. Sit ye doun, and I’ll fetch you some water in my bonnet. Ye’ve got a blaff o’ the sun.”

“I am not mad nor am I sick. I have preached throughout the summer at the sin, and the time has now come to get to grips with the sinner. This is your last chance, Ephraim Caird. Will you confess to me, who have been set in spiritual authority over you, or must confession be wrung from you by other means?”

It was a warning which David felt bound to give, but he was silent as to the rest of his purpose, for he had decided that the time had not yet come to show his hand. He looked sternly at Chasehope, and under his gaze the man’s face seemed to whiten, and his odd greenish eyes to waver. But it might be in innocent amazement.

“I kenna what ye speak o’,” he stammered. “What concern have I wi’ the Wud? Ask the wife, and she’ll tell you that I sleepit the Lammas nicht in my bed. But oh — the thing fair coups the crans! . . . and me an elder thae ten year! Ye’re no weel, or ye’re dementit, to speak sic words to a man like me. Awa’ hame, sir, and humble yoursel’ on your knees and pray that ye may be forgiven. . . . I may cry out in the words of the Psalmist, ‘They opened their mouth wide against me, and said Aha, our eye hath seen it.’”

David’s hand clenched on his staff. “Before God,” he cried, “I will strike you down if you utter another blasphemous word. You neglect my warning? Then your punishment be on your own guilty head.”

He turned and strode away. Once he looked back and saw Chasehope still staring, the very image of virtuous dismay.

There was no sermon in the kirk the next two Sabbaths. Robb the bellman had orders not to ring the bell, but few came to the kirkyard gate, for the rumour had spread that the minister would conduct no ordinances until he had taken counsel with the Presbytery. David waited, hoping for he knew not what — some thaw to melt this icy impenitence. At last, on the sixteenth day of August, he rode to Kirk Aller to visit Mr. Muirhead.

He found the Moderator in his parlour in the little stone manse, which stood below the kirk on the knowe at the west gate above the brig of Aller. The room had few books, but a mass of papers, for Mr. Muirhead was an active ecclesiastic and noted for his conduct of church business. Also, as if to meet the disturbed times in which he lived, a pair of spurred boots, still with the mud on them, stood beside the table, on it lay a brace of ancient pistols, and from the peg of the door hung a great horseman’s cloak.

Mr. Muirhead bent a preoccupied brow on David as he entered, but his face was well content. There were open letters before him, and it seemed that he had just been the recipient of welcome news.

“Come awa’ in, Mr. David,” he cried. He saw his visitor’s eye stray to the pistols. “Ay, I’ve got me to the auld weapons. I had them with me at the memorable assembly in Glasgow in ‘38, when we dang down the Bishops. . . . I have a crow to pyke with you, but first I have some braw tidings for your ear. At the last Presbytery we met under the shadow of calamity, but the Lord has mercifully turned again the captivity of Sion. Yon devil’s spawn, Montrose — alas that he should take his name from a burgh of which worthy Mr. Saunders Linklater was so long the faithful minister! — yon Montrose, I say, approaches the end of his tether. It has been a long tether, and he has ravened like a hungry hound, but he will soon be back on his haunches with the rope tightening at his thrapple. The Almighty has wysed him with a sure hand intil the snare that was prepared for him.”

“Has he been defeated?” David asked.

“By this time there is good hope that he has been scattered to the four airts of Heaven. After his savageries in the north he marches south to rend the fair fields of Stirling and the Lennox, and summon the towns of Glasgow and Embro, whilk are the citadels of our faith. Like Jeshurun he has waxed fat and kicked, but his pride will have a fearful fall; for long ere he wins to Clyde the trap will be sprung. He is bye Perth, and at this moment, I trow, at the skirts of the Ochils. Before him lie Argyll and Baillie with horse and foot, which are to his heathen hirelings as four men to one. The faithful folk of Fife are marching cannily against his left flank, and mustering from the Glasgow airt against his right are the braw lads of the West, led by those well-disposed noblemen, the Earl of Eglinton, the Earl of Cassilis, and the Earl of Glencairn. More — all the gentry of Clydesdale are on the road, commanded by the Earl of Lanark, and him and his Hamiltons are waiting to soop up the remnants of that which Argyll will shatter. Isna that a bonny tale, Mr. Sempill? Isna that a joyful recalling of our bondage, even as streams of water in the south?”

David assented, but to his surprise his interest was faint. He had more pressing problems than the public captivity of Israel.

“And now for other matters,” said Mr. Muirhead, setting his mouth again in severe lines. “I have word of grave mishandling at Woodilee. You have created a stramash in the doucest and most God~regarding parish in the presbytery of Aller. You are sinning away your mercies, sir.”

“It is of that I came to speak,” said David. “I have to submit to you, and through you to the Presbytery, proofs of a dreadful wickedness among professing Christians in that unhappy place. Will you be pleased to run your eye over these papers? You will see certain names subscribed as witnesses.”

Mr. Muirhead began to read the depositions carelessly, as if he knew what to expect from them. Then his attention deepened, and he wrinkled his forehead.

“Hoots! What’s this?” he cried. “Ye were in the Wood? Ye saw this and that? Mr. Sempill, ye’re not exempt from the charge of tampering with unlawful things.”

“I went there as God’s servant.”

“Nevertheless —” He read on, and his brows darkened. He finished, flung the bundle on the table, and looked at David with a troubled and uncertain eye.

“Here’s a bonny browst o’ yill! You charge your chief elder with the sin of witchcraft — a man of noted godliness, as I myself can testify — and you conjoin in the libel five women who are unknown to me. What is your evidence, I ask? Your ain een, at a time when you were in no condition to see clear, and forbye you were on the top of a tree, and it was in the mid of the night. You have no corroboration. But I pretermit the women, and come to Chasehope. You have cherished a suspicion of him since Beltane, says you, when you were present in the Wood. And what, I ask, did you there at that season, Mr. Sempill? I opine that your ain conduct wants some explanation.”

“That I can give,” said David.

“You have further the evidence of the man Andrew Shillinglaw, and the plot you prepared against Chasehope. Man, I see nothing in your red cock’s feathers or your hennyseed, as you call it. The well is tainted, so how can you look for pure water? Your Reiverslaw is notoriously a wine-bibber and a ruffler and a despiser of ordinances. What hinders that he should be also a leear? The cock’s feathers may all the time have been in his pouch, and he may have played some prank at Chasehope with the stinkin’ oil. You have the witness of the herds, says you, but it’s easy enough to begowk two landward simpletons. Your case will not hold water, sir, before any competent court, and Reiverslaw, your principal abettor, stands suspect. As the old owercome has it, he suld bide still that has riven breeks.”

Mr. Muirhead spoke with a weighty assurance, and as David looked at his shrewd coarse face he felt a sudden helplessness. It would be hard to convince a tribunal so prejudiced — in whose ears, perhaps, Chasehope had already spoken.

“My advice to you,” the voice went on, “is to get you home and let the steer settle. There’s nothing in these papers that calls for action by the Presbytery — just hearsay and idle ‘fama’, the visions of an excited young man and the lees of a drucken reprobate. No doubt you mean well, but I will homologate no course which fastens evil on a man whose righteousness has been abundantly proven. Have mind of the virtue of charity, sir, which thinketh no evil. I opine that you’re ower ready to think evil. Bring before me wise~like evidence and I will be prompt to act, but not these havers.”

So far he had spoken with a kind of rough good-humour, but now his voice became harsh.

“They tell me you have conducted no public worship these last two Sabbaths,” he said fiercely.

“I will not lead my folk into deeper hypocrisy,” said David. “I will not preach or pray in the kirk till I also denounce the sinners, and that I purpose to do on the next Lord’s day.”

“You will do no such thing,” said Mr. Muirhead sternly. “I, your elder, and father in God, forbid you.”

“I must follow my own conscience,” said David. “I am as convinced of the abominations of the Wood and of the persons that partake in them as that I am sitting with you here in Kirk Aller this August morning.”

“You would add contumacy to your folly,” the other roared. “You would sow dissension in the Kirk when it is necessary to set a stout front against the Kirk’s oppressors.”

“That,” said David firmly, “is mere carnal policy. In the name of God, whose purity is a flame of fire, would you let gross wickedness go unchecked because it may knock a splinter off the Kirk? I tell you it were better that the Kirk should be broken to dust and trampled underfoot than that it should be made a cloak for sin. I refuse to obey you, Mr. Muirhead. Next Sabbath I will make every wall in Woodilee dirl under my accusation.”

The two men were on their feet, David white with wrath, and the face of the other mottled with a like passion. “You rebellious schismatic,” the minister of Kirk Aller cried, when a knock at the door called both to a sense of the proprieties.

It was the minister’s man, who entered with a letter held reverently with the tips of his fingers.

“A dispatch, sir, from Embro. Brocht this moment by a mounted messenger, wha wouldna stay for meat, but maun post off doun the water.”

When the man retired, Mr. Muirhead, still standing and puffing heavily, broke the seal. He seemed to have trouble with the contents, for he moved his spectacles, took them off and rubbed them, and then re-read the missive. His eyes stared, his face paled, and then at the last perusal reddened again. He turned to David in a flame of temper.

“The Kirk must suffer for you and your like,” he cried. “The Lord had prepared an abundant mercy, whilk has been denied us because of the hardness of our hearts. Wae’s me, wae’s me for the puir sheep that have sic faithless shepherds! The auld and the bauld and the leal-hearted must go down because of conceited halflings like you that are Achans in the camp.”

“You speak in riddles, sir,” said David, whose sudden anger had gone at the spectacle of this strange transformation.

“It’s a riddle you’ll read or you’re a month older in letters of blood and fire. . . . Riddle, says you? The riddle is why the Almighty should give our covenanted Kirk sic a back-cast of His hand, and to that you maybe ken the answer. Our deliverance has most lamentably miscarried, and our bondage is waxed more grievous. Get out of my sight, for I must be about the Lord’s business, and there will be no rest for Mungo Muirhead this many a day. You have defied me, but wait on and see if you can defy your Creator.”

“You have had bad tidings?”

“Bad, says you? Ay, bad for God’s people and God’s Kirk, but they’re maybe blithe tidings for a schismatic like yourself. You’ll maybe get Left-handed Coll and his Irishry to purge your parish and burn the honest folk with whilk you are unworthily blessed. Awa’ to Montrose, man, for yon’s the lad for you!”


“Ay, Montrose. Know that yesterday, at Kilsyth, yon whelp of Satan was permitted to lay low the Covenant’s banner, and rout the godly. This word I have gotten is a scribe from Argyll, on his road to Berwick, written from a boat at the Queen’s Ferry. This very day it’s like that Antichrist will be hammering on the gates of Glasgow.”


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