Witch Wood, by John Buchan

Chapter 12

The Man with the Squint

The sermon which was to indict by name the sinners was not preached in the kirk of Woodilee the next Sabbath.

For the day after his return from Kirk Aller a post reached the manse from the Pleasance of Edinburgh which in an hour set David on his horse riding hard for the capital. There was plague in the city, and his father was sick of it. It was the plague in a new form, for death did not come quickly; the patient lay for days in a high fever, afflicted with violent headaches and shiverings, and a contraction of muscles and nerves, and then, in nine cases out of ten, passed into a rigor which meant death. There was no eruption on the bodies, and the physicians were at a loss in the matter of treatment. But it was scarcely less deadly than the older visitations, and the dead-bell rang hourly, and the dead-cart rumbled day and night on the cobbles.

David found the old man conscious, but very clear that he was near his end. The family doctor had bled him copiously, applied leeches to his head, and brought a horrid regiment of drugs and vomitories. The son pled with his father to receive them patiently. “God works by means,” he told him, “as Christ cured the blind man with clay and spittle, and what remedy could be more rude than these?”

“Aye, but it was the Lord that laid them on, Davie,” said the patient, “and no an auld wife like McGlashan.” So he sent the physician packing, and engaged a new one, a certain young Crosbie from the Monk’s Vennel, who had studied in France and had at least the merit of letting a sick man die in peace. Instead of smothering the patient under bedclothes, he kept him lightly covered, ordered the window to be open day and night, and let him drench his system with small ale. It is likely that under any treatment the old man would have died, for he was in his seventy~fourth year and had long been ailing, and the plague only speeded the decay of age. But under the new regimen his last days were less of a martyrdom. His head remained clear and he could speak with his son — chiefly of his mother and his childhood.

David lodged not in the city, but in the village of Liberton, and walked in daily to his father’s bedside. He read the Scriptures to him and prayed with him, as his duty demanded, but he felt a certain shyness at inquiring into his father’s state towards God. Nor was the old man communicative. “I’ve made my peace lang syne,” he said, “and I read my title clear, so there’s no need of death~bed wark for me.” But he was full of anxiety for his son. “You’ve chosen a holy calling, Davie lad, and I’m blithe to think you’ve got a downsetting in our calf-country. Man, there were Sempills in the mill o’ the Roodfoot since the days of Robert Bruce. But the ministry in these days is a kittle job, for the preachers are ower crouse, and the Kirk has got its heid ower high. . . . What’s come o’ this Montrose they crack about? . . . Keep you humble before the Lord, my son, for Heaven’s yett is a laigh yett.”

He died peacefully on the third day of September, and David had a busy week settling his affairs — the sale of the business and the household effects and the payment of bequests to servants and distant kin. Hour after hour he sat with the lawyers, for there was a considerable estate, and to his surprise he found himself with worldly endowments such as few ministers of the Kirk possessed. There was money at the goldsmith’s, and in his lawyer’s boxes deeds and sasines and bonds on heritable property, and there would be more to come. His doer, a little old snuffy attorney of the name of Macphail, grew sententious as the business drew to its close. “You’ve both the treasure on earth, Mr. David, and the treasure in Heaven, and it’s a pleasing thought that they’re alike well-guided. Anent the latter, moth cannot corrupt, saith the Word, nor thieves break through and steal, and anent the former a moth will no do muckle ill to a wheen teugh sheepskins, and it would be a clever thief that got inside Georgie Gight’s strong-room in the Canongate, where your bonds are deposited. So you can keep an easy mind, Mr. David, while you wrastle for souls in Woodilee.”

Those were strange days both for death in a bed and for conducting business, for the stricken city was the prey of wild fears. Scarcely a traveller entered her infected precincts, but rumour was as busy as the east wind in May. The battle of Kilsyth had worked a revolution in Scotland. Glasgow had surrendered and welcomed the conqueror, with enthusiasm for his person and largesse for his soldiers. The shires and the burghs were falling over each other in their haste to make submission. Edinburgh had been summoned, and a delegation of the town council had gone out beyond Corstorphine to capitulate to the young Master of Napier. The imprisoned Lords went free from the Tolbooth; David saw the sight — pallid men shivering with prison ague; only the Castle still held for the Covenant. Word came that the King had made Montrose Captain-general of all Scotland, and that soon the victorious army would move towards the Border; already, on the haugh of Bothwell by Clyde side, Sir Archibald Primrose had read the royal commission to the troops. A summons had gone out for a Parliament to be held presently in Glasgow —“for settling religion and peace,” said the proclamation, “and freeing the oppressed subjects of those insufferable burdens they have groaned under this time bygone.”

The ministers who walked the Edinburgh causeway wore gloomy faces. David had a sight of Mr. Muirhead, who sternly inquired of him what he did in the city. “I have come to bury my father,” he replied. “If he died in the hope and the promise,” was the answer, “he has gotten a happy deliverance, for the vials of wrath are opened against this miserable land.” It was a phrase repeated like a password by others of his ministerial brethren, and he replied with a becoming gravity, but he could not in his heart feel any great sorrow. For he remembered the face of the groom at Calidon, and he wondered how that face looked as a conqueror. Pride, he was assured, would not be in it. . . . News came that Montrose was at Cranstoun and moving by Gala Water to the Border. For a moment David had a crazy desire to follow him, to be in his presence, for he had a notion that if he could but have speech again with that young man the shadows and perplexities might lighten from his mind.

At last he set off homeward, and under the rowans at Carlops brig he read a printed paper which had been circulated in the Edinburgh streets — torn across and cast away by many, but by others cherished and pondered. It was a manifesto of Montrose from the camp at Bothwell, and it set out his purpose. In it were the very words used by the groom that night at Calidon. The nobles had destroyed “lawful authority and the liberty of the subject,” the Kirk had coerced men into a blind obedience worse than Popery. He took up arms, he said, for pure religion, “the restoration of that which our first reformers had;” for the King, and the establishment of a central authority; for the plain people and the “vindication of our nation, from the base servitude of subjects.” He confuted the timorous souls “who can commit nothing to God.” He repudiated the charge of blood-guiltiness, for he had never “shed the blood of any but of such as were sent forth to shed our blood and to take our lives.” And he concluded by pointing to the miracles that faith had wrought: “What is done in the land, it may sensibly seem to be the Lord’s doing, in making a handful to overthrow multitudes.” The words came to David with a remembered sound, like the echo of a speaking voice. Could this man be the bloody Amalekite of the Kirk’s denouncing? On which side, he asked his perplexed soul, did the God of Israel fight, for this man’s faith was not less confident than that of the minister of Kirk Aller?

Isobel received him with the reverential gloom which the Scots peasantry wear on an occasion of death.

“So it’s a’ bye, sir. We got the word from the Embro carrier, but I wasna looking for ye yet awhile, for we heard ye were like to be thrang wi’ the lawyer bodies. . . . He just slippit awa’, for how could an auld man stand out against yon wanchancy pestilence? It’s a gait we maun a’ gang, and he would be weel prepared Godward, and at ease in his mind about warldly things, for they tell me he was brawly set up wi’ gear. And there’s just yoursel’ to heir it, Mr. David? . . . But shame fa’ me to speak o’ gear in this sorrowful dispensation, for a faither is a faither though he live ayont the three score and ten years whilk is our allotted span.”

“He died as he lived, Isobel, a humble but confident Christian. I think he was pleased to know that I was settled in his forebears’ countryside.”

“He wad be that, honest man. Fine I mind o’ your gudesire, and mony a nievefu’ o’ meal I gat from him when I was a bairn. But I’m concerned for yoursel’, Mr. David, and fearfu’ lest ye have got a smittal o’ the pestilence. Ye’re fine and ruddy, but there’s maybe fever in your veins. Drink off this wersh brew, sir — it was my mither’s way to caller the blood — just kirnmilk boiled wi’ soorocks.”

David asked concerning the parish.

“Woodilee!” Isobel cried. “If Embro’s a stricken bit, it’s nae waur than this parochine. For the last se’en days it’s been naething but wars and rumours o’ war. Ye’ll hae heard o’ how Montrose has guidit our auld Sion, and now we’ve Antichrist himsel’ on our waterside. Ay, he’s no twenty miles across the hills, campin’ with his Edomites somewhere on Yarrow, as welcome as snaw in hairst. The lads and lasses are a’ fleyed out o’ the sheilin’s, for the Yerl o’ Douglas — weary fa’ him! — and his proud horsemen are drovin’ ower frae Clyde like craws in the back-end. We canna move man nor bestial, and folk winna ride the roads except in a pack, and they tell me that Amos Ritchie wi’ his auld firelock was sent for to convoy the minister o’ Bold to Kirk Aller. The weans daurna keek past the doorstane, and Johnnie Dow winna gang his rounds, and he’s been lyin’ fou at Lucky Weir’s thae three days. There’s nae wark done in a’ Woodilee, nor like to be done — it’s a dowg’s life we’ve gotten, muckle ease and muckle hunger.”

“But the place has suffered no harm?”

“No yet, forbye a wedder o’ Richie Smail’s that Douglas’s dragoons brandered and ate yestreen at the Red Swire. But ony moment a vial may be opened. — What hinders Montrose to come rauvagin’ this airt? for if it’s meat and drink he’s seeking for his sodgers, Woodilee is a bien bit aside yon bare Yarrow hills. Forbye Calidon’s no that far, and they tell me that our auld hirplin’ laird, wha suld rather be thinkin’ o’ his latter end, is high in the command o’ the ungodly, and him and yon sweirin’ Tam Purves will be rampin’ like lions in their pride. Hech, sir, our kindly folk are in the het o’ the furnace, in whilk they will either be brunt to an ass, or come out purified as fine gowd. . . . But what am I claverin’ here for, when ye’re wantin’ your denner? It’s little I hae for ye, for our meal ark is nigh toom, and there’s no a kain hen left on the baulks.”

That night David sat long in his study. It was now the sixteenth day of September, and the sultry weather, which had fostered the plague, was sharpening towards autumn. He had returned from his father’s death-bed in something of the mood in which he had first entered the manse. The confusion in the State was to him only a far-off rumour; he was not greatly concerned whether Covenant or King was a-top, for he had no assurance as to which had the right on its side. But he longed for peace, that he might be about his proper business, for the charge of Woodilee lay heavy on his soul. The wickedness against which he had raged seemed now to him as pitiful as it was terrible, a cruel seduction of Satan’s against which he must contend, not without pity for the seduced. Charity filled him, and with his new tenderness came hope. He could not fail in the struggle before him — God would not permit his little ones to be destroyed.

Had he not forgotten the minister in the crusader? His books caught his eye — he had touched them little during the summer. What had become of that great work, Sempill on Isaiah? He pulled out his manuscript notes and for a little was happy in their contemplation. . . . The day’s ride had been long and the sun had been hot. His head nodded, then dropped on his arm, and he fell asleep.

He awoke to a sound below the window. The manse stood at the extreme southern end of the kirkton, beyond the kirk, a long bowshot from the nearest dwelling, which was Robb the bellman’s. To the west of it lay the broomy slopes of the Hill of Deer, to the east the glen of the burn and Windyways hill, and to the south the rough meadows through which the road dipped to the Wood. It was a lonely spot, as Isobel often testified, and after nightfall no soul came near it; even a traveller on the highway did not pass within half a mile.

His study window opened on the garden, and the sound seemed to come from some one knocking gently on the back door. David, still confused with sleep, took his candle and descended the stairs. Isobel had heard nothing — for the muffled sound of her snores came from the press-bed behind the kitchen. . . . Again the soft knocking came, this time with a more insistent sound. In some trepidation David unbolted the door, telling himself that it might be a summons to attend a dying parishioner.

There was little moon and a thick autumn haze covered the ground. Rising out of it, like ships out of the water, were huge figures, and he saw that they were mounted men. One of them sat his horse and held the other beasts; one was on his feet and supported a third, who seemed very weary.

David raised his candle, and saw the figure of the standing man. The face was dark with sun, but darker under the eyes with fatigue; the dress, once rich and splendid, was both mired and torn; and one hand was wrapped in a blood-stained kerchief.

“Do I speak with the minister of Woodilee?” the man asked, and at the first word David knew him. That voice had been echoing all the year in his chamber of memory.

“I am the minister,” was his reply. “In what can I serve my Lord Marquis?”

The face relaxed into a smile, which made it for the moment gay in spite of the heavy eyes.

“You have not forgotten me? Nor have I forgotten you, and therefore I come to you in sore need to beg a charity. I do not doubt but you are of the opposite faction, but I know also that you are a faithful minister of Christ, whose custom was to do good to His enemies. Will you give shelter to this wounded comrade of mine, and thereby save the life of one whom you consorted with a year back in Calidon?”

“But this is but a poor manse, my lord. Why do you come here when Calidon is so nigh?”

“Alas! Calidon is no port for me or mine in this storm. Know, sir, that this day my army has been beaten on the Yarrow haughs and utterly scattered. Before morning Leslie’s troopers will be knocking at Calidon door. I myself am a fugitive, and there is no safety till I cross the Highland line. But this comrade of mine has a broken leg, besides other hurts, and it is impossible that he should ride farther. If he does, he will impede us and we shall be taken. But where can I leave him, for I am in an unfriendly country, and if he is captured it will be the gallows for an honest fellow? I bethought me that you were minister of this parish, and that your heart was not likely to be steeled to common humanity, and a manse is the one place that the pursuit will miss. Will you take him and let him lie hid till the hunt passes? After that he will fend for himself, for he is an old soldier of the German wars.”

“He has done no evil . . .?”

“None save what I have done myself. He has drawn the sword in a brave cause which this day has sorely miscarried. But, sir, it is not of politics I speak, but of charity. For the sake of Christ’s mercy, I beseech you not to refuse.”

“It is a heavy charge, my lord, but I cannot say you nay.”

Montrose shifted the burden of the wounded man to David’s arm. “Farewell, Mark,” he whispered. “The good cause is down but not dead, old friend. You know where to get news of me.” Then he kissed his cheek and gave his hand to David.

“May God bless and reward you, sir. I dare not linger. We will take the third horse with us, for it would be too kenspeckle in your stable. Think kindly of me, whatever my fate, as I think tenderly of you, and pray for a lonely man whose feet are set on a long road.”

The next moment the riders had disappeared in the fog. David stood in a dream, for he would have given worlds to recall the speaker. His voice, the sight of his face, had brought back tenfold the longing to be with him which had haunted him after the Calidon meeting. The man had been a conqueror and was now a fugitive, but earthly fortunes had no meaning for such an one. Those calm eyes would look on triumph and disaster alike unperturbed.

He was roused by the wounded man going limp in his arms, and he saw that he had fainted. He carried him up the steep stairs — Isobel’s snoring still making a chorus in the background — and laid him on the bedstead in the guest-room. The bed was not made up, and it was clear that he must wake Isobel. As the man’s head drooped on the bolster David turned his candle on it. The face was grimed and blood-stained, but there was no mistaking the features: it was the tall trooper with the squint whom he had once guided to Calidon.

David sought the kitchen and hammered at the door of the press-bed. The snoring ceased, and presently a scared and muffled voice demanded what was the trouble.

“Get up, woman,” David ordered. “There’s a sick man here that has need of you.”

Three minutes later Isobel appeared, shawled and nightcapped. “Keep us, Mr. David, is’t yoursel’ that’s seeck?” she wailed. “I didna like the look o’ ye the day and —”

He cut her short.

“A friend of mine has had a mischance. His leg is broken, and I think there is other trouble. Listen, Isobel. . . . The man is one of Montrose’s soldiers, and Montrose’s army has suffered defeat. If he is found here by the pursuing troops, he will die. He is my friend, and I would save him. You and I must nurse him between us, and no word of his presence here must pass these doors.”

“Mercy on us! A malignant!” the old woman exclaimed.

“And my friend,” said David curtly. “If I think it consistent with Christian duty to save his life, so well may you. You and I have no quarrel with stricken men. I appeal to the kind heart that is in you and your regard for me, and I do not think I will appeal in vain.”

“Your wull be done,” said Isobel. “Whaur is the body? See and I’ll get blankets and pillows, for the bed hasna been made up this sax months.”

The sight of the figure on the bedstead, his quilted and brocaded coat, his light cuirass, his long untanned boots much scratched and frayed, his feathered hat beside him on the floor, caused Isobel to shrink.

“A rampin’ Edomite,” she said. “Look at the long hair and the murderin’ sword, stained, nae doot, with the bluid of the saints. Your friend, says you, sir? Weel, he’s been walkin’ ither than Gospel roads, I can see brawly, and gin he hadna been amang the craws he wadna hae been shot. . . . But the puir chield’s in a dwam! Haste ye, sir, and help me off wi’ thae Babylonish garments, and that weskit o’ airn — what for suld folk gang to the smith for cleading and no to a wabster? And stap his swird aneath the bed, for I’m feared to look on’t.”

The man half recovered consciousness as they stripped off his coat and cuirass, and when it came to the breeches he groaned aloud. So they left them on him and slit the boot on the broken leg. It was a clean break of the shin, and Isobel, who showed some skill in the business, set the leg, and bound it in firm splints made of the staves of an old cask. Then they searched for further damage, and found that he was suffering from little except an extreme fatigue. There was a pike wound in his shoulder, which Isobel bathed and bandaged, and a pistol-ball had been turned by the mail he wore and had left a bruised rib. By the time the grime and blood were washed from his face, he had got his senses sufficiently back to find his voice.

“You are the minister?” he asked. “I am crippled, as you see, sir — an accursed fail-dyke on Minchmoor did it — and you’ll not be wanting this kind of merchandise long on your hands. A drink and six hours’ sleep will set me up, and I’ll make shift to take the road. Let me bide here till the morn’s night, and you’ll be rid of me.”

“You’ll not be fit to move for a week. You can sleep here securely. You’re in a friend’s charge.”

The sick man was an old soldier who took life as it came. After he had drunk a bowl of gruel laced with usquebagh, he turned on his side and fell asleep. David and Isobel went down to the kitchen and, with the candle between them, looked at each other with something like consternation.

“We must burn those clothes,” said David.

“Na, na. I’ll make a bundle o’ them and hide them in the cupples. It’s braw raiment, gin it were cleaned. But oh, sir, this is a bonny kettle of fish! Who wad hae thocht to see such wark in the manse of Woodilee?”

“It is a work of mercy.”

“There’s some wad call it by anither name. There’s some wad say it was turnin’ back from the gude fight, and a faintin’ and a backslidin’ on the road. I’d be feared to think what yon thrawn minister o’ Bold wad call it, but it wadna be mercy. He’d be for savin’ the puir lad as Jael the wife of Heber the Kenite saved Sisera.”

“I will be party to no such wickedness, which would be an offence against human charity as well as against the law of Christ.”

“Ay, charity. I’m blithe to hear ye speak the word, sir.” Isobel’s eyes had an inclination to twinkle.

“I must follow the guiding of my own conscience. But I would not constrain you. If the thing offends you, I will even now, before it is light, carry the man to the Greenshiel . . . ”

“A bonny gait that wad be. The avenger of blood will be chappin’ ony hour at Richie’s door, and there’s nae space at the Greenshiel to hide a mouse. Na, na, I’m no denyin’ your duty, Mr. David. There never was woman yet, young or auld, that was ill-set to a sodger, forbye yon randy Jael, wha maun hae been an unco trial to her man. And the lad upbye seems a decent body, though he skellies [squints] sair wi’ his left ee. I’se do your bidding, sir, and I hope it winna be accounted to me for sin.”

“Can we keep him here without any one knowing of it?”

“Brawly. The folk o’ Woodilee are sweir to come near the manse thae days. They’re feared o’ the glower they micht get from you.”

“But if Leslie’s troopers arrive and offer to search —?”

“I’ll search them! I’se warrant I’d be doun on them with my ten fingers like a gled on poutry. Isobel Veitch will learn the godless loons to mak’ free with the house o’ a man o’ God. And mind, sir, if onybody speirs, ye maun brazen like a packman. Bleeze awa’ about the needcessity o’ speed in the guid cause and send them on their ways to Clyde, and maybe ye’ll be spared the sin o’ actual leein’.”

“If need be I will not shrink from the false word, which will be forgiven in the cause of mercy.”

“Fine, sir.” Isobel grinned appreciatively on him; for this confederacy seemed to have ended the estrangement between servant and master. “There’s a man ahint the minister in you, whilk is mair than ye can say for the feck o’ the Presbytery.”

“And, meantime, I must be up and doing.”

“Ye’ll awa’ to your bed and sleep out your sleep. What’s the need o’ hurry when the body’s leg is still to set. As my auld mither used to say, naething suld be done in haste but grippin’ a flea. . . . But I’ll look out some of your auld garments, for our friend will hae to cast his braw coat and put on homespun or he wins forth o’ Woodilee.”


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