Witch Wood, by John Buchan

Chapter 15


Ill news travels fast, and by noon next day word of the complaint against their minister, of Mr. Muirhead’s suspension of him from the pulpit, and of David’s defiance was in the mouth of every parishioner in Woodilee. David was aware of curious eyes following him as he went about the place, and of a new constraint on the part of most of his Kirk Session. Peter Pennecuik fled his approach, and could be seen hobbling into the nearest kailyard, while Mirehope, when he met him, gave him greeting with averted face. But he noted, too, a certain sympathy in others. Women, who had formerly avoided him, had now a friendly word, especially the young ones, and Alison Geddie — whose name had appeared in his charge — was overheard, as he passed, to comment in her pea-hen voice to her gossip: “Peety for sae wise-like a lad, and him aye with the kind word and the open hand to puir folk.”

Isobel, whose face was now always heavy with unspoken news, he kept at a distance, for in these days he was trying to make peace with his soul. By day and by night, on the hills and in his closet, he examined himself to find in his conscience cause of offence. He went over every step in his past course and could discover no other way than that he had followed. He could not see matter for blame in an act of common charity, though Old Testament precedents might be quoted against it; nor could he blame himself for his war against the things of the Wood. If he read his duty more by the dispensation of Christ than of Moses, it was Christ whom he had been ordained to preach. . . . Of Katrine he scarcely suffered himself to think. She was a thing too fine and gracious to be touched with such doleful cares. Yet it was the thought of her which kept youth alive in him, and in his dreariest moments gave him a lift of the heart. When he looked down from the Hill of Deer on the dark shroud of Melanudrigill and beside it the shaws of birch and hazel which stretched towards Calidon, he saw his strife as a thing natural and predestined, and he himself as only a puppet in the grip of primordial powers. The thought gave him the confidence which springs from humility.

On the Sabbath he preached from a text in Ecclesiastes: “So I returned, and considered all the oppressions that are done under the sun: and behold the tears of such as were oppressed, and they had no comforter; and on the side of their oppressors there was power; but they had no comforter.” His hearers looked no doubt for some topical word, but they did not find it; few realized the meaning of a discourse which David preached rather to himself than to others. It was a confession of faith, a plea for personal religion, and an anathema against shibboleths and formulas which did not dwell in the heart. So long as religion is a pawn in a game of politics — the argument ran — so long will there be oppressors and oppressed, with truth the perquisite of neither side, and therefore comfort to none. . . . The congregation was notably reduced, for the five elders and their families were absent. But there was one new figure who sat modestly in the back parts of the kirk. It was that of a man of middle age, dressed like the other farmers in homespun, but holding himself with a spruceness rare in a place where men and women were soon bowed in the shoulders by unremitting toil. His cheeks were shaven, so that he stood out from the others, since, besides the minister, only Chasehope was unbearded. His skin was as brown as a hazel-nut, and though the face was composed to a decent gravity, there was a vigour in the lines of it which spoke of a life not always grave. The man had a blue bonnet of a pattern common nearer the Border — smaller than the ordinary type which came from the Westlands — and after the fashion of Cheviot and Liddesdale he had a checked plaid of the kind called shepherds’ tartan. But in the cast in the left eye, shown by a sudden lifting of the face, he revealed his identity.

The stranger did not wait to speak to the minister, but David found Amos Ritchie at the kirkyard gate, and asked concerning him. “It’s the new man that has ta’en the tack o’ Crossbasket,” was the answer. “He’s frae the far Borders — Jeddart way, they tell me — and it’s no easy to understand the wild hill tongue o’ him. But he’s a decent, weel-spoken body, and it seems he’s a skilly fairmer and a graund judge o’ sheep. He has stockit his mailin’ weel, and has a full hirsel on Windyways. . . . Na, he’s a single man and bauds to himsel’, though he has a name for a guid neebor.”

Amos accompanied the minister to the manse, and there was a shy friendliness in his air, as if he regretted the estrangement of the summer. He spoke only of weather and crops, but his manner suggested a desire to say something by way of encouragement. Only at the manse gate, however, did he find utterance. “If there’s deep waters to be crossed, sir, I’ll ride the ford wi’ ye,” he muttered as he turned away.

Presently it was apparent that a change had come over the parish. David’s doings in the summer had puzzled and alarmed it; even those with a clear conscience had thought of him as a danger to their peace and good repute. But now that he was himself in dire trouble, and indicted before the Presbytery, there was a revulsion in his favour; his friendliness was remembered, his kindness in the winter storms, his good looks and his youth. He had his own party in the place, a party composed of strange elements. There were in it noted professors like Richie Smail and Rab Prentice; Isobel and her kin were hot on his side; Reiverslaw, of course, many of the frequenters of Lucky Weir’s ale-house, and all who from poverty or misdeeds were a little blown upon. If the Pharisees and Scribes were against him, he had the publicans and sinners. Also he had the children. By some secret channel the word had gone round in the circles of childhood that their friend was in trouble, and in queer ways they showed their affection. The girls would bring him posies; bowls of wild rasps and blaeberries would be left at the manse; and often on the doorstep Isobel found an offering of guddled trout neatly strung on rushes. Daft Gibbie, too, had become a partisan. He would dog David’s footsteps, and when spoken to would only reply with friendly pawings and incoherent gabble. He would swing his stick as if it were a flail. “Sned them, sir,” he would cry, “sned them like thristles.”

But the comfort of the atmosphere in which he now moved was marred for David by the conduct of Reiverslaw. That worthy had been absent in Nithsdale when Philiphaugh was fought, and did not return till the week after the battle. It would seem that the general loss of stock due to the disturbances had benefited his pocket; he had sold his hog-lambs to advantage, and had had a prosperous deal in black cattle with Leslie’s quartermaster. By the middle of October the work on the hill farms was all but over for the year, and Reiverslaw was a leisured man. Whether the cause was the new access of wealth or the excitements of Lammas, he fell into evil courses. There was word of brawls in ale-houses as far apart as Lanark and Kirk Aller, and he would lie for days in Lucky Weir’s, sleeping off potations, only to renew them in the morning. His language coarsened, his tongue grew more unbridled, his aptitude for quarrels increased till he became a nuisance in the village and a public scandal. “A bonny friend ye’ve gotten in Andra Shillinglaw,” Isobel said bitterly. “For three days he has been as fou as the Baltic, and cursin’ like a cornet o’ horse.” David made several attempts to reason with him, penetrating to the back parts of the ale-house, but got no reply but tipsy laughter and owlish admonitions. It looked ill for the credit of his principal witness.

The call of Calidon was always in his ears, but he did not yield to it. October brought a fortnight of drenching rains, and Katrine came no more to Paradise. He could not bring himself to seek her in her home, for he dared not compromise her. Already a nameless woman appeared in the tales against him, and he would have died sooner than let the woman’s identity be revealed. From her he had had kindness and comradeship, but these things were not love, and how could he ask for love when every man’s hand was against him and he could offer nothing but companionship in disrepute? . . . But loneliness weighed on him, and he longed to talk with two especially — the minister of Cauldshaw and the new tenant of Crossbasket. But when he rode one afternoon to Cauldshaw, it was not only the minister’s self that drew him there, but the remembrance that the Calidon household were among his parishioners.

Mr. Fordyce was scarcely recovered of an autumn ague, and his little bookroom was as bleak and damp as a grave. He sat in a wooden armchair, propped up with pillows, nightcap on head, a coarse drugget dressing-gown round his shoulders, and two pairs of stockings on his thin shanks. His wife was sick a-bed, outside the rain dripped steadily, there was no fireplace in the chamber, and gloom muffled it like a shroud. Yet Mr. James was casting a horoscope, and mild and patient as ever.

“Tell me the whole story, Mr. David, for I’ve heard naught but rumour. They say you’ve fallen out sorely with Mr. Mungo at Kirk Aller.”

David recounted the events of the past months, beginning with Lammastide in the Wood, and ending with his last visit to Mr. Muirhead, The other heard him out with many sighs and exclamations, and mused for a little when he had finished.

“You havena been over-gentle with the Moderator,” he said. “Far be it from me, that am so imperfect, to impute error to a brother, but you canna deny that you took a high line with Mr. Mungo.”

“I was within my rights in refusing to obey his suspension. He had no resolution of the Presbytery behind him.”

“Maybe no. But was there no excess of vehemence, Mr. David, in defying one who is your elder? Would not the soft word have availed better? You seem to have spoken to him like a dominie to a school bairn.”

“Oh, I do not deny that I was in a temper, but if I was angry it was surely with a righteous anger. Would you have me let that black business of the Wood be smothered just because Chasehope, with his sleek face and his cunning tongue, has imposed on the Presbytery? And for the charge against myself, would you, I ask you, have refused succour to any poor soul that came seeking it, though his sins were scarlet on him?”

“I’ll not say. I’m a timid man by nature, and I’m so deeply concerned with my own state towards God that I’m apt to give other duties the go-by — the more shame to me! In the matter of the Wood I think you have done honestly and bravely, and I doubt I wouldna have had the courage to do likewise myself. The Lord be thankit that such a perplexity never came my way!. .. As for Montrose’s man, what am I to say? Mr. Mungo will quote Scripture against you, and it’s not for me to deny the plenary inspiration of the whole Word, though I whiles think the Kirk in Scotland founds a wee thing over much on the Old Testament and forgets the New. But I can see great trouble for you there, Mr. David, for the view of Kirk Aller will be the view of the Presbytery — and the view of the General Assembly, if the thing ever wins that far.”

“But what would you yourself have done in like case? Would you have turned the suppliant from your doors?”

“I do not know. To be honest with you, I do not know. I am a weak vessel, and very fearful. But in such a case I should pray — ay, I should pray to be given strength — to do as you did, Mr. David.”

The young man smiled. “I’ve got the comfort I wanted. I’m content to be judged by you, for you are nearer the Throne than the whole Presbytery of Aller and the Merse.”

“No, no. Dinna say that. I’m the feeblest and poorest of God’s servants, and at the moment I’m weakening on what I said, and doubting whether a man should not bow to lawful authority, and cultivate a humble spirit, as the first of the Christian graces. What for did our Lord found the Kirk if it wasna to be obeyed?”

“Bide where you were, Mr. James. What kind of a Presbyterian would you make yourself out? By your way we should be still under the bondage of Rome, because Rome was once the lawful authority. A bonny Covenanter, you! If the Kirk constrains conscience unduly, and makes a tyranny out of Christian freedom, then the Kirk is no more to be respected than the mass the old priests mumbled in Woodilee.”

Mr. Fordyce smiled wanly. “I daresay you’re in the right. But what a tangle for an honest man! You’ve taken the high road, Mr. David, and I must keep jogging along the low road, for there’s but the two of them. A man must either jouk and let the jaw go bye, as the owercome says, or he must ride the whirlwind. I have been given the lown downsetting, where I can nourish my own soul and preach Christ to the best of my power, and let the great matters of Kirk and State pass me, as a man hears the blast when he sits by his fireside. It is for stronger spirits like you to set your face to the storm. Alack and alas, I’m no fierce Elijah to break down the temples of Baal, and I’m no John Knox to purge the commonwealth of Israel. If you go forward in God’s name, my dear young man, you’ll have a hard road to travel, but you’ll have the everlasting arms to support you. . . . But oh, sir, see that you fight in the Lord’s strength, and not in your own. Cultivate a meek and contrite spirit, for I suspect that there is a good leaven of the old Adam in your heart.”

“That’s a true word. There’s an unregenerate heat of temper in me at which I often tremble.”

“And you must keep your walk and conversation most pure and circumspect. Let there be no cause of reproach against you save what comes from following your duty.” Mr. Fordyce hesitated a little. “There was word of another count in Mr. Mungo’s complaint anent you. . . . Wasna there some tale of a woman?”

David laughed.

“The Queen of the Fairies, Mr. Muirhead says, though he does not believe in her. . . . I have a confession to make to you, Mr. James, which I would make to no other ear. I have met with a lady in the Wood, for indeed she was engaged with me in the same errand of mercy. I had met with her before that, and I count the days till I may meet with her again. It is one whom you know — Katrine Yester.”

“Mistress Katrine!” Mr. Fordyce cried out. “The young lassie from Calidon. Mr. David, Mr. David, is this not a queer business for a minister of the Kirk? Forbye that she is of a house that is none too friendly to our calling — though far be it for me to deny her Christian graces — forbye that, I say, she is of the high gentrice. What kind of wife would she be for a poor Gospel preacher?”

“Oh, man, there’s no question of wife. You make me blush to hear you. The lady would never think of me any more than an eagle would mate with a throstle. But a minister is a man like the lave [rest], and this one is most deeply in love, though he has not the thousandth part of a hope. There’s no shame in an honest love, which was a blessing given to man by God’s own self in Eden.”

“It’s a matter I ken little of,” said Mr. Fordyce shyly. “Me and Annie have been that long wedded that we’ve forgot what our wooing was like. She wasna by-ordinar in looks, I mind, but she had a bonny voice, and she had mense and sense and a fine hand for making apple jeely. . . . Mistress Katrine! You fly high, David, but I wouldna say — I wouldna say. . . . Anyway you’ve a well-wisher in me. . . . But Katrine Yester!”

David left the minister of Cauldshaw ingeminating that name, and in a blink of fine weather set out on his way home. He was on foot and beyond Reiverslaw, where the road first runs out of the birks to the Hill of Deer, when he was overtaken by a horseman. The mount was no farmer’s shelty or minister’s garron, but a mettled chestnut mare, with marks of breed in head and paces, and he who rode her was the new tacksman of Crossbasket.

In that open bright place there could be no eavesdropper. The rider dismounted and flung his arms round the minister.

“I pay my debt,” he cried, “by becoming your dutiful parishioner, your next-door neighbour, and your faithful hearer ilka Sabbath. . . . Danger, you say. Man, the darkest hidy-hole is just under the light, and the best sanctuary for a hunted man is where he is not expected. They’re riping the ports for Mark Kerr, once captain of Mackay’s and till late a brigadier under the King’s Captain-general, but they’ll no trouble about honest Mark Riddel, a plain farmer-body from Teviotside, that comes up Aller seeking a better tack and has mair knowledge of sheep than any herd on the hills. And Mark will pay his way with good white siller, and will be a kind neighbour at kirk and market. My Roxburghe kin are buried deep, but there’s folk in Woodilee already that mind of my great~aunt that was married into Annandale, and my cousin once removed that was a herd in Megget. Trust an old soldier for making a fine palisado around him of credible lees. I run no risk save the new ones that I make for myself, and I’m in no mind for that, for a peaceful year or two will be good for my soul, till I see whatna way the cat jumps. Montrose must get him abroad, and if I’m to bide quiet let it be in my own countryside and not in a stinking foreign city. . . . But for yourself, Mr. David? From all I hear you’ve been making an ill bed to lie on.”

They sat down in the roadside heather, and David brought up to date the tale which he had first told him in the deeps of the Wood. To unburden himself to this man was a greater comfort than his talk at Cauldshaw, for this was one accustomed to desperate straits and chances, and of a spirit more akin to his own. The soldier whistled and looked grave.

“Faith, you’ve stirred up the hornets, and it’s not easy to see where you will get the sulphur to smoor them. There’s much in common between you and my Lord Marquis. You see the ills of the land and make haste to redd them, but you have no great notion of what is possible.”

“You would not have had me do otherwise?”

“No, no. I like your spirit fine, and beyond doubt you’ve taken the honest road. But we live in a pitiful world, where honesty is an ill-requited trade; and you’ve let yourself be forced into defence, whilk is an unpleasant position for a campaigner. . . . Count me on your side, but let me take my own gait. It winna do for you and me to appear to be chief [friendly] in public. I’ll make haste to conciliate the mammon of unrighteousness — whilk I take to be Chasehope — so dinna wonder if you hear that the two of us are like brothers. But it’s the Kirk I fear, your own sacred calling, Mr. David. One shilpit body in bands and a Geneva gown, the way things are guided now, is more powerful than a troop of horse, and less easy to get upsides with. . . . Still and on, I’m at hand across the glebe, and we’ll no be beat for lack of good contriving. The night’s the time, when we can step across and collogue at our ease.”

To have the soldier at Crossbasket gave a lift to David’s spirit. But at first he saw him rarely, for it was wise to let the man settle down in the place before appearing in his company, lest people should suspect a previous friendship. Mark Riddel appeared to be for ever on the move, and the minister met him oftenest on the Rood road — generally in the early darkness. It pleased him to think that his neighbour was visiting Calidon, for it seemed to bring Katrine nearer. But he made no effort to see the girl himself. With the fall of the leaf the season for Paradise had gone, and he could not seek her at home till he had unravelled the tangle of his own perplexities.

The chief of them was the approach of Hallowmass. He was determined not for one moment to forgo his charge against Chasehope and his coven, whatever the counter-charge against himself might be, and if necessary to go in person again to the Wood. But his chief ally, Reiverslaw, spent his days drinking soddenly in the clachan, and when he sought him out at the ale-house he got nothing but fuddled laughter. Then one morning he found him on the hill, and apparently in a better mind.

“My ran-dan is bye,” said Reiverslaw sullenly. “Ye’ve cause to upbraid me, sir, and no words o’ yours can be waur than what I gie mysel’. It’s apt to take me that way at this time o’ year, and I think black burnin’ shame that I should be sae thirled to the fauts o’ the flesh — drinking like a swine in a stye among folk that, when sober, I wadna touch wi’ a graip’s end. I’m no better than the beasts that perish. But I’ve fand out ae thing in these humblin’ days. There’ll be nae Wud at Hallowmass. The folk we ken o’ dinna fancy the Wud aince the Lammas is bye, and it’s the clachan itsel’ that will see their next cantrips.”

“But there is no place that could contain them —” David began.

“I ken, but they maybe follow some ither gait. I’ll be in the kirkton that nicht — na, na, ye needna fear for me, I’ll no gang near the hostler-wife — the verra thocht o’ yill and usquebagh staws [sickens] me. But I’ll be there, and you maun be in the manse, and we’ll guide our gait according to what the nicht brings forth. I’ll wager Chasehope will no be long out o’ my sicht, and if he meddles wi’ me he’ll find me waur than the Deil’s oxter. . . . Keep a watch on yoursel’ that day, sir, for there’s mony will wish ye out o’ the clachan.”

The last day of October came, and David rose to find that the rain had gone, and that over the drenched hills had dawned a morning as bright as April. He spent the forenoon in distracted study, striving to keep his mind on printed pages, but his restlessness was such that after dinner it sent him to the moors. He took his old road for the Rood tops, and by three o’clock had reached the pass from Clyde, where in July he had had his talk with Reiverslaw.

The earth was soaked with the October rains, and as the sun’s power declined in the afternoon a mist began to creep out of the glens. Insensibly the horizon shortened, the bold summit of Herstane Craig became a blur and then was hidden in clouds, the light wind of the morning died away, and over the land crept a blind eerie stillness. David turned for home, and long before he had reached the crest above Reiverslaw the fog was down on him. It was still a gossamer covering through which it was possible to see a hundred yards ahead, but objects stood up in it in unfamiliar outlines — a sheepfold like a city wall, a scrag of rowan like a forest tree.

A monstrous figure appeared in the dimness, which presently revealed itself as a man on horseback. David saw that it was Mark on his chestnut.

“Well met,” the man cried. “I’m pushing for home, for I’m getting the yowes to the infield, but I saw you before the mist dropped and I guessed I would find you here. There’s a friend of yours up bye that would be blithe to see you — up the rig from the auld aik on the road to the Greenshiel.” With no further word Mark touched his mare and went off at a canter.

The friend, thought David, would be Richie Smail, who might have some message to him from Reiverslaw. So he turned as directed past the root of oak towards the ridge of the hill. In twenty yards a figure loomed before him, a figure on a horse. He fancied it was Mark returning, till as he drew nearer he saw that it was no man that sat the black gelding and peered into the thick weather.

It flashed through his mind that Mark had sent him here on purpose. And then something came into his soul which he had never known before, a reckless boldness, a wild joy which caught at his heart. The girl was looking away from him, and did not turn her head till he was close on her and had spoken.

“Mistress Katrine,” he cried breathlessly.

She looked down on him, her face rosy, her hair bedabbled with the mist jewels. She did not start at his approach. Was it possible that she was expecting him?

“What does the minister on the hill?” she asked.

“What does Mistress Katrine? It will be a thick night and you are still far from Calidon.”

She was dressed all in green, with a kirtle which scarcely reached her ankles and left her foot in the stirrup clear. The feather from her green hat hung low over her curls. David had never seen a woman gloved and booted for the hunt, and in that hour and in that wild place the apparition was as strange and as beautiful as a dream.

“I took out the hawks this morning with Edie the falconer, for the mallards were flighting over from Clyde. Edie went back an hour ago with the birds, and I lingered to watch the mist creep up. Maybe I have lingered too long.”

“That was good fortune for me,” he said. “I have not dared to come seeking you, but now that we are met I will convoy you to Calidon. Presently the world will be like the inside of a feather bed.”

She made no protest, when he laid his hand on her bridle to turn her horse, and as he stole a look at her he saw that she was smiling. That smile sent a tremor through him so that he forgot every care and duty. He and she were enclosed in a magical world — together and alone as they had never been before. . . . He felt that he could bring her safely through raging rivers and across mountains of stone, that for her he could scale the air and plough the hills, that nothing was impossible which she commanded. They two could make of the world a song and a rapture. So deep was his transport that he scarcely heard her voice when she spoke.

“I have been hearing of your troubles, Mr. David. He whom we must call Mark Riddel has told me.”

“I have no troubles,” he cried. “Now that I see you the world is altogether good.”

“Will you tell that to the Presbytery?” she asked, laughing.

“I will tell it to the broad earth — if you give me leave.”

A momentary confusion came over her. She slightly checked her horse, and as the ground shelved the beast stumbled. The slip brought her in contact with David’s shoulder, and before she knew his hand was laid on hers.

“Oh, my dear, my dear,” he cried. “Katrine, I must say it . . . I am daft for love of you. . . . Since I first saw you down in the greenwood your two eyes have been sun and moon to me. Your face — God forgive me — comes between me and the Word. There are times when I cannot pray for thinking of you. . . . It’s nothing I ask of you, Katrine, but just leave to tell you. What was it your song said? —‘There’s nane for me but you, my love’— and oh! it’s the gospel truth.”

She did not reply, but her hand did not move under his. They were descending the hill towards Rood, and the fog had grown so thick that each to the other was only a shadow. Before it had enclosed them in a visible encirclement; now it seemed to have crept so near that it dislimned the outlines of horse and rider. He held her by touch rather than by sight, and this disembodiment seemed to give him courage.

“I seek nothing,” he said, “but that you should know my love. I am perplexed with coming battles, but so long as you’re in life there’s nothing can daunt me. I would not have you smirched with the stour of them, but if you’ll let me think of you and mind of you and whiles see you I’ll be as strong as Samson. The papist cries on his saints, and you are the saint whose name is written on my heart.”

Still she did not speak, and he cried out in alarm.

“Have I angered you? Forgive me — forgive me — but I had to speak. Not one other word more will I say till we are at Calidon door.”

Her answer, when it came, was strange, for it was a song crooned very softly:

“It’s love for love that I have got,
And love for love again.”

A great awe came over David and checked his breath — the awe of one who sees and yet does not believe, the answer to a hopeless prayer. His hand tightened on hers, but she slipped it away. “So turn,” she sang:

“So turn your high horse heid about
And we will ride for hame, my love,
And we will ride for hame.”

The hand which had moved from under his was laid on his head. Suddenly a face bent down towards him and a kiss as light as a bird’s wing brushed his forehead. He caught her to him from the saddle.


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