Witch Wood, by John Buchan

Chapter 13

White Magic

The man upstairs slept for a round of the clock, and then awoke and clamoured for food. Isobel reported that he was cured of his weakness, and that the pike wound in his shoulder was no more than a scratch. “Forbye his leg, he’s as weel as you or me, and he has the hunger o’ a cadger’s powny. It was an awesome sicht to see him rivin’ my bannocks. He’s speirin’ to see ye, for nae doubt he has muckle on his mind.” The old woman was in the best of tempers, and her wizened face was puckered in a secret smile, for she and her master were now restored to friendship as partners in conspiracy.

David found his guest clad in one of his own bedgowns, the hue of health once more on his unshaven cheeks. His first request was for a razor and for shears, and when Isobel had shorn his hair, and he had got rid of a three days’ beard, it was a head of a notable power and dignity that rested on the pillow. The high-boned, weather-beaten face, the aquiline nose, the long pointed chin were no common trooper’s, and the lines about mouth and eyes were like the pages of a book wherein the most casual could read of ripe experience. The brown eyes were dancing and mirthful, and the cast in the left one did not so much mar the expression as make it fantastically bold and daring. Here was one who had lived in strange places and was not used to fear.

“It’s a sore burden I’ve brought on you, Mr. Sempill,” he cried, “and it’s you that’s the good Samaritan. It was my lord’s notion that I should throw myself on your compassion, for it’s a queer thing, I own, for a cavalier to be seeking a hiding-place in a manse, though Mark Kerr has had some unco ports in his day. I mind in Silesia — But there’s no time for soldiers’ tales. You’ll be wanting me out of this as soon as I can put foot to ground, and it’s blithe I’ll be to humour you. My leg is setting brawly, says that auld wife who is my chirurgeon, and in less than a week I’ll be fit to go hirpling on my road.”

“That will be to walk into the fire,” said David. “If Montrose’s army is scattered throughout the hills, there will be such a hunt cried as will leave no sheiling unsearched.”

“Just so. I’ll not deny that this countryside is unhealthy for folk like me. You’ll be well advised to bury or burn the clothes I had on last night, and if you can lend me a pair of grey breeks and an auld coat, I’ll depart with a lighter mind.”

“You’ll be for the sea and the abroad?”

“No me. It’s at the coast that they’ll be seeking me, and a wise man that’s in trouble will go where he’s no expected. I think I’ll just bide hereaways. Put me in a frieze jacket and I’ll defy Davie Leslie himself to see Mark Kerr, the gentleman-cavalier of Mackay’s, in the douce landward body that cracks of sheep and black nowt. You’ll maybe have me in your congregation, Mr. Sempill. I’m thinking of taking a tack of Crossbasket.”

David stared. “Are you mad?” he asked.

“Not so — only politic, as is the way of us soldiers of the Low Germany. One of my profession must think well into the future if he’s to keep his craig unraxed. I’ve had some such escapado in mind ever since I travelled north a year syne, and I’ve had a word on the matter with Nicholas Hawkshaw, so when the glee’d [squinting] auld farmer body from Teviotside seeks the tack of Crossbasket, the lawyer folk in Edinburgh will be prepared for him. Nicholas was like me — he kenned fine that our triumph in the North was fairy gold that is braw dollars one day and the next a nieve~full of bracken.”

“Where is the laird of Calidon?”

“By a merciful dispensation we left him sick at Linlithgow, and Nicholas, being an eident soul, had a boat trysted at the Borrowstounness, and by this time doubtless will be beating down the Forth on his way to a kinder country. He’ll be put to the horn, like many another honest gentleman, and his braw estates may be roupit. Thank the Lord, I have nothing to lose, for I’m a younger son that heired little but a sword.”

“A month ago,” said David, “Montrose was lord of all Scotland. You tell me that everything has been lost in one battle, and that you and others were confident of its loss. Man, how did he succeed with such a rabble of the half-hearted behind him?”

“I wouldna just call it half-hearted. We won because James Graham is the greatest captain since Gustavus went to God at Lutzen, and because he has a spirit that burns like a pure flame. But he did not ken this land of Scotland as me and Nicholas kenned it. He had a year of miracles, for that happened which was clean beyond all sense and prevision, but miracles have an ugly trick of stopping just when they are sorest needed. . . . A year syne there were three men on Tayside — Montrose and Inchbrakie and me — and that was the King’s army. By the mercy of Providence we fell in with Alasdair Macdonald on the Atholl braes, and got a kind of muster at our back. . . . There’s no Hieland blood in you, Mr. Sempill? No? Well, it’s a very good kind of blood in its way, but it’s like the Hieland burns — either dry as the causeway or a roaring spate. It’s grand in a battle, but mortal uncertain in a campaign, if you follow me — and that James should have held it in leash till he had routed Argyll and Baillie and Hurry, and brought the Kirk and Estates to their knees, is a proof of genius for war that Gustavus never bettered. But for conquering Scotland, and keeping the conquest fixed — na, na! Hielands will never hold down Lowlands for long, and that Lowland support we reckoned on was but a rotten willow wand. My lord deceived himself, and it was not for me to enlighten him, me that had witnessed so many portents. So we kept our own thoughts — Nicholas and me — and indeed we had half a hope that a faith which had already set the hills louping might perchance remove the muckle mountains. But I tell you, sir, when we marched for the Borders I had a presage of calamity on me as black as a thundercloud.”

“But you had the army that won Kilsyth?”

“Not a third of it. Yonder on Bothwell haughs it melted away like a snow-wreath. Macdonald — he is Sir Alasdair now and a Captain~general, and proud of it as an auld gander — must march off with the feck of his Irishry to Argyll to settle some private scores with Clan Diarmaid. The Gordons took the dorts [sulks]— a plague on their thrawn heids — and Aboyne and his horse went off in a tirrivee. James looked for a Lowland rising, for, says he, the poor folk for whom I fight are weary of the tyranny of greedy lairds and presumptuous ministers. If so, they are ower weary to show it. What can be done with lads that grovel before a Kirk that claims the keys of Heaven and Hell? . . . If that sounds blasphemy, sir, you’ll forgive a broken man that is unlocking his heart and cannot wale [pick] his words. . . . Forbye, the Irish were like a millstone round our necks, for what profit was it to plead that Munro used them in Ireland for an honest cause? To the Lowland herds and cotters they were murdering savages, and the man that had them on his side was condemned from the beginning. The sons of Zeruiah were too strong for us.”

“Is it true that they fight barbarously?” David asked.

“So, so. I’ll not deny that they’re wild folk, but they havena your Kirk’s taste for murder in cold blood. There were waur things done in Methven Wood than were done at Aberdeen, and it’s like that Davie Leslie is now giving shorter shrift to the poor creatures than ever they gave to the Campbells in Lorne and Lochaber. . . . We’ll let that be, for there was never an army that did not accuse its enemies of barbarity, and the mere bruit of it on our side was enough to keep the Lowlands behind steekit doors. There were some of the nobles that we counted on — my Lord Home, and my cousin Roxburghe, and the sly tod Traquair. James was in good heart at their promises, but I mistrusted the gentry, and I was most lamentably justified, for when we were on Teviotside, where were my lords but in Leslie’s camp? — prisoners, they said — but willing refugees, as I kenned braw and well.”

“And the battle?”

A spasm of pain passed over the other’s face.

“It was not, properly speaking, a battle, but more in the nature of a surprise and a rout. We were encamped on Yarrow at the gate of the hills, for the coming of Davie Leslie had altered our plans, and we were about to march westward to the Douglas lands. We were deceived by false intelligence — it was Traquair’s doing, for which some day he will get my steel in his wame — but I bitterly blame myself that an old soldier of the German wars was so readily outwitted and so remiss in the matter of outposts. . . . In the fog of the morning Davie was on us, and Douglas’s plough-lads scattered like peesweeps. There were five hundred of O’Keen’s Irish, and five score of Ogilvy’s horse, and for three hours we held Davie’s six thousand. These are odds that are just a wee bit beyond my liking, forbye that we had no meat in our bellies. Brawly they fought, the poor lads, fought as I never saw men fight in the big wars — but what would you have? . . . It’s no tale for me to tell, though it will be in my mind till my last breath.”

He sighed, and for a moment his face was worn and old.

“Well and on, sir,” he continued. “The upshot is that the bravest of Scottish hearts is now, by God’s grace, somewhere on the road to the Hielands, and the great venture is bye and done with, and here am I, a lameter, seeking sanctuary of a merciful opponent. If to shelter me does violence to your conscience, sir, say the word and I’ll hirple off as soon as the night falls. You’ve given me bite and sup, like a good Christian, and suffered me to get my sleep, and you’ve no call to do more for a broken malignant.”

“My conscience is at ease anent succouring the wounded and saving a man’s life. And I have no clearness about this quarrel of Montrose and the Kirk, and would therefore give it the go-by. But I will exact the promise that, if you come off safe, you will fight no more in Scotland. In that much I am bound to serve my calling.”

“You shall have the promise. Mark Kerr is for beating his sword into a ploughshare. What says the Word? ‘His speech shall be of cattle’— though, now I come to think of it, that’s from what you gentry call the Apocryphal books and think little of. . . . I’m one that has no great love for idleness on the broad of his back. Have you no a book to while away the hours? Anything but divinity — I’ve lost conceit of divinity these last months when I’ve been doing battle with the divines.”

David furnished his guest with reading which was approved, and then went forth into Woodilee. The village made holiday, and every wife was at her doorstep. A batch of troopers were drinking a tankard at Lucky Weir’s, and saluted him as he passed. The people he met had an air of relief and good temper, and looked with a friendly eye on the minister, forgetting apparently the Lammas controversies and the shut kirk, for he was a representative of the winning cause.

Peter Pennecuik, sitting on a big stone outside the smithy, was the chief dispenser of tidings. His cheeks were swollen and his voice faltered with pride.

“What for do ye bide in your tent, Mr. Sempill, in this hour of our deliverance? They tell me that Mr. Ebenezer of Bold has mounted his beast and ridden wi’ the horsemen to harry the ungodly’s retreat. Ay, and baith Chasehope and Mirehope have ta’en the road, for the haill land is fou’ o’ the wreckage of the wicked, as the sands o’ the Red Sea were strewed wi’ the chariots o’ Pharaoh. Our General Leslie is no ane to weaken in the guid cause, for there’s word that his musketeers hae shot the Irish in rows on the Yarrow haughs, ilk ane aside his howkit grave, and there’s orders that their women and bairns, whilk are now fleein’ to the hills, are to be seized by such as meet wi’ them, as daughters of Heth and spawn of Babylon, and be delivered up to instant judgment. Eh, sir, but the Lord has been exceeding gracious us-ward, and our griefs are maist marvellously avenged. . . . Nae doot ye’ll be proclaimin’ a solemn fast for praise and prayer.”

David ate his dinner with a perturbed mind, for if the countryside was being scoured for fugitives on this scale, it was unlikely that the manse would remain long inviolate. But Isobel reassured him. “They wad never daur ripe the house, and for the lave I can speak them fair in the gate.” In the afternoon he set out to walk to the Greenshiel, since the road would give him a far-away glimpse of Calidon. Autumn was already chilling the air, and the horizon was a smoky purple, the heather was faded, the bracken yellowing, the rowan trees plumed with scarlet, the corn in the valley already more gold than green. To David, in whose ear was still the gloating voice of Peter Pennecuik, the place seemed to smell of death.

At the Greenshiel he found death in bodily form. On the plot of turf outside the cottage half a dozen troopers stared from their saddles at something that lay on the ground. The men were mostly a little drunk, and had the air of a pack of terriers who have chased a cat and found it at bay — an air that was puzzled, angry, and irresolute. David strode towards them, and they gave place to him, somewhat shamefacedly. On the turf lay a wretched draggle-tailed woman, her clothes almost torn off her back, her hair in elf-locks, her bare feet raw and bloody. Her face was emaciated and of an extreme pallor, her shrunken breast heaved convulsively, and there was blood on her neck. Richie Smail was on his knees attempting to force some milk between her teeth. But her lips shut and unshut with her panting, and the milk was spilled. Then her mouth closed in that rigor from which there is no unloosing.

Richie lifted his head and saw the minister.

“She’s bye wi’t,” he said. “Puir thing, puir thing! She ran in here like a hunted maukin.” Then to the soldiers: “Ye had surely little to dae, lads, to mishandle a starvin’ lassie.”

There was no sign of compunction on the coarse faces of the troopers.

“An Irish b-bitch,” one hiccoughed. “What’s the steer for a bawbee joe?”

“Tam Porteous kittled her wi’ his sword point,” said another. “Just in the way o’ daffin, ye ken. She let out a skelloch and ran like the wund.” The man put his hands to his sides and guffawed at the memory of it.

He did not laugh long, for David was on him like a tempest. The fuddled troopers heard a denunciation which did something to sober them by chilling their marrow. As men, as soldiers, as Christians, he left them no rag to cover them. “You that fight in God’s cause,” he cried, “and are worse than brute beasts! Get back to your styes, you swine, and know that for every misdeed the Lord will exact punishment a thousandfold.” He was carried out of himself in his wrath. “I see each one of you writhing on a coming field of battle, waiting to change the torments of the flesh for the eternal agonies of Hell. You are the brave ones — your big odds gave you a chance victory over one that for a year hunted you and your like round the compass — and you purge your manhood by murdering frail women.”

It was not a discreet speech, and a sentence or two of it pierced through their befuddlement, but it sent them packing. They were too conscious of the power of a black gown in Leslie’s army to dare to outface a minister. David marched homeward with his heart in a storm, to find an anxious Isobel.

“These are dreidfu’ days,” she moaned. “We were telled that Montrose’s sodgers were sons of Belial, but if they were waur than yon Leslie’s they maun be the black Deil himsel’. Wae’s me, bluid is rinnin’ like water on Aller side. There’s awfu’ tales comin’ doun from the muirs o’ wild riders and deid lasses — ay, and deid bairns — a’ the puir clamjamphry that followed the Irish. It canna be richt, sir, to meet ae blood-guiltiness wi’ anither and a waur. And yon thrawn ettercap frae Bold ridin’ wi’ the sodgers and praisin’ the Lord when anither waefu’ creature perishes! And Chasehope, they tell me — black be his fa’— guidin’ the sodgers to the landward buts-and-bens like a dowg after rattons! Catch yon lad frontin’ an armed man, but he’s like Jehu the son of Nimshi afore defenceless women.”

David asked if any one had been near the manse.

“That’s what fickles [puzzles] me. There’s been naebody at the door, but there’s been plenty snowkin’ round. There’s a gey guid watch keepit. And waur than that, there’s sodgers in the clachan — ten men and ane they ca’ a sairgent at Lucky Weir’s. I heard routin’ as I gaed by the kirkton, and, judging by the aiths, there’s sma’ differ between them that fechts for Montrose and them that uphauds the Covenant.”

Next day the uneasiness of both increased. The place was thronged with troopers, among them the men whom David had denounced at the Greenshiel. It is probable that his hasty words had been reported, for dark looks followed him as he passed the ale-house. Moreover, Isobel had news in the village that Leslie’s main forces were even now moving towards Woodilee, and that the triumphant general himself would lodge in the village. Where would such lodging be found except in the manse? At any moment the guest-room and its contents might lie bare to hostile eyes.

By the afternoon David had come to a decision. The wounded man must at all costs be moved. But where? Calidon would be as public as the street, and besides he had heard that a picket had been stationed there in case its laird came looking for shelter. . . . The hills were too open and bare, Reiverslaw would be suspect — in any case its tenant babbled in his cups. . . . Then he had an inspiration. Why not Melanudrigill, for its repute would at ordinary times make it the perfect sanctuary? He would be a bold man, it was true, who sought a lair in its haunted recesses, but this Mark Kerr did not lack for stoutness of heart. He found him yawning and extracting indifferent entertainment from a folio of Thuanus.

Kerr only grinned when he heard of the danger.

“I might have guessed that the place would soon be hotching with Davie’s troops. And maybe I’m to have Davie in bed aside me? Faith, I fear we wouldna agree, though I’ll no deny that the man has a very respectable gift in war. . . . I must shift, you say, and indeed that is the truth of it, but hostelries are no that plenty in this countryside for one like me that’s so highly thought of by his unfriends.”

Melanudrigill was set before him, and he approved.

“The big wood. Tales of it have come down the water, but I’ve never paid much attention to clavering auld wives. . . . There’s black witchcraft, you say — you’ve seen it yourself? I care not a doit. There’s just the one kind of warlock that frichts me, and that’s a file of Davie Leslie’s men. Find me a bed in a hidy-hole and some means of getting bite and sup till I can fend for myself, and I’ll sit snug in Melanudrigill though every witch coven in Scotland sat girning round me with the Deil playing the bagpipes.”

David was clear that he must be moved that night, but he was far from clear as to how it was to be done. He did not dare to take any other into the secret, not even Reiverslaw or Amos Ritchie, for hatred of Montrose was universal among the Lowland country folk. He and Isobel might make shift to get him to the Wood, for Isobel was a muscular old woman, but there was much to do besides that — a bed to be found, food transported, some plan made for a daily visit. There was no help to be found in Woodilee.

And then he remembered Katrine Yester.

For a long time he would not admit the thought. He would not have the girl enter a place of such defilements. The notion sickened him and he put it angrily from him. . . . But he found that a new idea was growing in his mind. The Wood had been a nursery of evil, but might it not be purified and its sorceries annulled if it were used for an honest purpose? The thought of Mark Kerr, with his hard wholesome face and his mirthful eye, eating and sleeping in what had been consecrated to midnight infamies, seemed to strip from the place its malign aura. . . . To his surprise, when he thought of Mark in the wood, he found that he could think of Katrine there also, without a consciousness of sacrilege. The man was her uncle’s comrade-in-arms — he was of the cause to which she herself was vowed — she was a woman and merciful — she was his only refuge. . . . Before the dusk fell he was on the road to Calidon.

He had expected to find a house garrisoned and dragooned, and had invented an errand of ministerial duty to explain his presence. He found instead a normal Calidon — the evening bustle about the gates, an open door, and Katrine herself taking the air in the pleasance beside the dovecot. She came towards him with bright inquiring eyes.

“You have soldiers here?” he asked breathlessly.

She nodded to a corner of the house, which had been the shell of the old peel tower.

“They are there — three of them — since last night. They arrived drunk — with two wretched women tied to their stirrups. . . . We were most courteous to them, and they were not courteous to us. So Jock Dodds wiled them into the place we call the Howlet’s Nest and gave them usquebagh and strong ale till they dropped on the floor. They are prisoners and woke up an hour ago, but they may roar long and loud before a cheep is heard outside the Howlet’s Nest, and the door is stout enough to defy an army.”

“But Leslie himself will be here. Other soldiers will come, and how will you explain your prisoners?”

The girl laughed merrily. “Trust Aunt Grizel. Two lone women — violent and drunken banditti — locking them up the only way — and then a spate of texts and a fine passage about soldiers of the good cause setting an ensample. I will wager my best hawk that Aunt Grizel will talk down General Leslie and every minister in his train. . . . The women are safe in the garret, less hurt than frightened. The poor things talk only the Erse, and there’s none about the town to crack with them.”

He told her of the midnight visit to the manse and the lame man left on his hands.

“You saw him?” she whispered. “You saw the Lord Marquis. How did he look? Was he very weary and sorrowful?”

“He was weary enough, but yon face does not show sorrow. There’s an ardour in it that burns up all weakness. He would continue to hope manfully though his neck were on the block.”

“Indeed that is true, and that is why I will not despair. When I heard the news of disaster I did not shed a single tear. . . . Whom did he leave behind?”

“The tall man — Mark Kerr is his name — who was in this house of yours a year back. Him that has a cast in his eye.”

“But that is the Lord Marquis’s most familiar friend,” she cried. “The occasion must be desperate which parts them.”

“The occasion grows more desperate,” he said, and told her of the need for instant removal.

When he spoke of the Wood she showed no surprise.

“Where else so secret?” she said.

“Dare you go into it?” he asked. “For unless I have your help the business is like to prove too hard for me. I will confess that it sticks in my throat to stir one step myself into the gloom of the pines, when I ken what has been transacted there, and it sticks sorer to have you in that unholy place. But if this Kerr is to be saved, there’s need of us both. The man will have to be fed, and that would be done more easily from Calidon than from the manse.”

“Why, so it must be. I have been pining for some stirring task, and here it is to my hand. I will be your fellow-labourer, Mr. David, and we begin this very night. For a mercy there is a small moon. . . . No, Aunt Grizel shall not hear of it. I have the keys and can leave and enter the house as I choose. When the dusk comes and our guests in the Howlet’s Nest are quiet from hoarseness, I will bid Jock Dodds carry certain plenishing to Paradise.”

A little before midnight, when even the clamour of Lucky Weir’s was still, three figures stole from the manse, after David by many reconnaissances had assured himself that the coast was clear. Montrose’s erstwhile captain was dressed like a small farmer, in David’s breeches and a coat that had once belonged to Isobel’s goodman. He had a rude crutch, with which he managed to keep up a good pace, having learnt the art, he said, during an escape from a patrol of Wallenstein’s, which for greater security had manacled the prisoners in pairs leg to leg. Isobel prospected the road before him like a faithful dog, while David steadied him with his arm. In such fashion they crossed the Hill of Deer, and in a darkness lit only by the stars came to the glade called Paradise. There they found awaiting them a glimmering girl, at the sight of whom Isobel’s fears broke loose, for she prayed in words not sanctioned by any Kirk, and her prayer was for mercy from the Good Folk.

Kerr made an attempt at a bow. “Mistress Yester, it is not the first time I have come for succour to women of your house. They say I must take to the shaws like Robin Hood, but the wildwood will be a palace if you are among its visitors.”

“Yester,” Isobel muttered to herself. “The young leddy o’ Calidon! Wha wad have thocht that the minister was acquaint there? Certes, she’s the bonny ane,” and she bobbed curtsies.

Katrine was the general. “These bundles are bedding and food. Up with them, sir, and I will guide Captain Kerr. I have also brought a covered lantern, which will light us through the pines better than your candle, Mr. David. La, this is a merry venture.”

The sense of company, the presence of Katrine and the soldier, the nature of the errand, above all the preposterous figure of Isobel, whose terrors of the Wood were scarcely outweighed by her loyalty to her master and her curiosity about the girl, took from the occasion for David all sense of awe, and even endowed it with a spice of fun and holiday. The mood lasted till they had crossed the boundary glen and entered the pines; it endured even when, feeling their way along the foot of the low cliffs, they looked downward and saw by the lantern light an eerie white stone in a dim glade. The girl guided them to a dry hollow where an arch of rock made a kind of roof and where a yard off a spring bubbled among the stones. It was she, and not Isobel, who made a couch of branches and fir boughs on which she laid the deerskins and plaids she had brought. It was she, and not David, who gathered dry sticks against the morning fire and saw that Kerr had flint and steel and tinder. It was she, too, who made a larder of a shelf in the rock, where she stored the food, and fixed certain hours of the day for further provisioning, and enjoined a variation of routes to prevent suspicion. It was she finally who presented Kerr with a pistol, shot, and powder — belonging, it is to be feared, to one of the imprisoned troopers — and who saw him to bed like a nurse with a child.

“I’m as snug here as a winter badger,” said Kerr contentedly. “I lack nought but a pipe of tobacco, and that I must whistle for, seeing that I left my spleuchan at Philiphaugh. . . . Mistress, you’ve the knack of an old campaigner. You might have been at the wars.”

“The men of my race have always been at the wars, and the women have always dreamed of them,” she said, and on his forehead she kissed him good-night.

David Leslie came to Woodilee in the morning, but did not halt, pushing on to Lanark in the afternoon. His army was in less of a hurry, and three troop-captains made their beds in the manse, while the minister slept on his study floor. They were civil enough, cadets of small houses in Fife, who had had their training in arms abroad, and cared as little for the cause they fought for as any mercenary of Tilly’s. Within two days the neighbourhood was clear of soldiery, save for the garrisons left as earth-stoppers at houses like Calidon, which might be the refuge of malignants.

For a week Mark Kerr lay in the recesses of Melanudrigill, and for David the days passed like a seraphic vision. Every night after the darkening he met Katrine in Paradise, and the two carried to the refugee his daily provender — eggs and milk, ale from the Calidon buttery, cakes which were Mistress Grizel’s, cheese which was Isobel’s. For David the spell of the Wood had gone. He looked on it now as a man does at his familiar bedroom when he wakes from a nightmare, unable to reconstruct the scene of his terrors. His crusading fury, too, had sensibly abated, for part of his wrath against witchcraft had been due to his own awe of the Wood and his disgust at such awe. Now the place was a shelter for a friend, and a meeting-ground with one he loved, and the cloud which had weighed on him since he first saw it from the Hill of Deer gave place to clear sky. Men might frequent Melanudrigill for hideous purposes, but the place itself was innocent, and he wondered with shame how he came ever to think that honest wood and water and stone could have intrinsic evil.

Nightly, in the light mists of the late September, when pine trees stood up out of vapour like mountains, and the smell of woodland ripeness was not yet tinged with decay, David and Katrine threaded the aisles and clambered among the long bracken, till a pinpoint of light showed from beside a rock and was presently revealed as Kerr’s bivouac. They would sit late with him, listening to his tales and giving him the news of the glens, while owls hooted in the boughs and from the higher levels came the faint crying of curlews. There was much business to be done between Mark and Calidon — business of Nicholas Hawkshaw’s, who had been duly put to the horn, and over whose goods, by the intrigues of Mistress Grizel, a friendly curator had been appointed, and business of his own anent the tack of Crossbasket — and Katrine carried daily messages by letter and by word of mouth. When his leg was healed there was a certain polish to be given to his appearance, and the ladies of Calidon were busy with their needles. When he left his lair at last it was just before dawn — on foot, with a blue coat instead of the hodden grey of Isobel’s goodman, and four miles on the Edinburgh road Jock Dodds from Calidon waited with a horse for him.

David would fain have had the leg prove troublesome, that the time of hiding in the Wood might be prolonged, for that season passed for him with the speed of a too happy dream. To be with Katrine was at all times bliss, but to be her partner on these dark journeys and in these midnight conclaves was a rapture of happiness. If he had lost his awe of the Wood, he had lost also the sense that in letting his heart dwell on the girl he was falling away from duty. The standards of the Kirk meant the less to him since he was in declared controversy with its representatives, and a succourer by stealth of its enemies. His canons of conduct were dissolving, and in their confusion he was willing to surrender himself to more ancient instincts. The minister was being forgotten in the man and the lover.

The lover — though no word of love was spoken between the two. They were comrades only, truant children, boy and girl on a Saturday holiday. It was a close companionship, yet as unembarrassed as that of sister and brother. In her presence David caught her mood, and laughed with it, but when absent from her he was in a passion of worship. The slim green-gowned figure danced through his waking hours and haunted his dreams. He made no plans, forecast no future; he was in that happy first stage of love which is content to live with a horizon bounded by the next meeting.

In such a frame of mind he may have grown careless, for he did not see what Isobel saw. His housekeeper, brisk with the consciousness of a partnership with her master in things unlawful and perilous, and under the glamour of Katrine’s gentrice and beauty, was as unquiet as a hen with a brood of young ducks on the pond’s edge. She clucked and fussed, and waited for David’s return in an anxious tempest. “There’s queer ongaein’s in this bit,” she told him. “When I hearken in the sma’ hours I hear feet trailin’ as saft as a tod’s [fox], and whiles a hoast [cough] or a gant [yawn] which never cam’ frae a tod’s mouth. And yestreen when ye set out, sir, there was something slipped atween the birks and the wa’ and followed. I wish it mayna be your deid wraith.” He pooh-poohed her fears, but on the last night, when he parted from Katrine in Paradise, and according to his custom watched her figure as, faint in the moonlight, it crossed a field of bracken above Rood, he saw something move parallel to her in the fern. On his way home, too, as he passed the kirkton road in the first light, there was a rustling among the elders, and a divot fell mysteriously from the turf dyke.


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