Witch Wood, by John Buchan

Chapter 9

Before Lammas

One day in July David saddled his horse and rode to Kirk Aller for a Presbytery meeting. He found a bewildered brotherhood. The usual “exercises” were omitted, there was no prelection on a set doctrinal theme for the benefit of the younger ministers, the sittings in the kirk were occupied mainly with prayers for a humbled Sion and a distracted country, and the dinner thereafter in the Cross Keys was not notable for good fellowship. But it was a crowded gathering, and among the lay members in the kirk was Ephraim Caird.

At the meal Mr. Mungo Muirhead, primed with letters from Edinburgh, gave ill news of the war in the North. Montrose the recusant continued to win battles, and was even now marching southward with his savage Irishry to strike at the citadel. “What for does Davie Leslie no hasten,” he cried, “and what profits it to have a covenanted State and a purified Kirk if a mailed Amalekite can hunt our sodgers from Dan to Beersheba? I tell you, sirs, this war which has hitherto been fought among Hieland glens will soon be at our ain doorcheeks, and our puir folk will be called to testify, not with voice and word and the scart of a pen, but with sufferings and revilings and bloody murderings. Forth and Aller may yet run red, and the hand of death be on the Lowdon fields. Are we prepared, I ask, and I ask it yet again? Whatna gifts will we bring to the altar in the coming day of sacrifice?”

His fears had given dignity to the minister of Kirk Aller. The man was a fighter, for his mouth shut tight, and there was a spark of fire in his heavy eyes. Nor was Mr. Proudfoot of Bold less ready for the fray. He had got himself a pair of great boots, and looked a very Ironside as he expanded his big chest and groaned assent to his leader’s warning.

“Let us see that there is no Canaanitish thing in our midst,” Mr. Proudfoot cried, “for the purge of the Lord is nigh. And let Israel dwell in unity, for a house divided shall not stand. These are the twin counsels for this day of wrath, a pure cause and a brotherly people. These, I say, are the dams with which to stem the tide of the heathen’s rage.”

“And that’s a word in season for you, Mr. Sempill,” said Mr. Muirhead. “I hear ye’ve set the haill parish of Woodilee by the lugs with wanton accusations. You’ll admit none to the Table, says you, till there is public confession of some unkenned iniquity. I applaud zeal in a young minister, but it seems you’ve fair got your leg ower the trams, and the serious folk of Woodilee are troubled to ken what ye mean. Have a care, Mr. Sempill, lest this zeal of yours be but human impatience. This is no time to sow confusion among God’s people.”

The minister of Kirk Aller had lost his air of rough good-humour. It was a hard face and an inquisitorial eye that he bent on David.

“I take my stand on the first of Mr. Proudfoot’s counsels,” said the latter. “If the day of trial is coming, our cause must be pure, and there must be no Canaanitish thing in our midst. When I am clear about the sins of Woodilee, the Presbytery will have further news of me.”

The young man’s speech was too assured to please Mr. Muirhead. He drew down his eyebrows till they formed a straight line bisecting his huge expanse of face.

“Have a care, have a care, I counsel you,” he said crossly. “I can tell you that there’s many an auld exercised professor in Woodilee that’s sore concerned about your doings.”

Mr. Proudfoot added his reproof. “When I mind on the precious work I witnessed in that very parish in the month of March, I will not believe that the Devil has got the master hand. Examine yourself, I rede you, Mr. Sempill, and see if the beam be not in your own eye.”

David rode away from Kirk Aller in the company of Mr. Fordyce of Cauldshaw, but they had not ridden a mile before there was a clatter of hoofs behind them, and the minister of Bold joined himself to their company. His beast was fractious, having had an unaccustomed feed of oats in the Cross Keys stable, and Mr. Proudfoot, since he was an awkward horseman, had to spend much of his energy in keeping it to the road. But what time he could spare from his task he devoted to catechizing David, and for the three miles during which their course lay together his tongue never stopped.

“There’s an ill ‘fama’ of you gone abroad, Mr. Sempill, and it is my duty as your elder in the Lord’s service to satisfy myself thereanent. It is reported that you pervert the doctrine of election into grace, maintaining that this blessed estate may be forfeit by a failure in good works, as if the filthy rags of man’s righteousness were mair than the bite of a flea in face of the eternal purposes of God.”

“I say that a man who believes that his redemption through Christ gives him a licence to sin is more doubly damned than if he had never had a glimpse of grace.”

“But ye maun distinguish. The point is far finer than that, sir. I will construe your words, for there is an interpretation of them which is rank heresy.”

The task of construing and distinguishing did not fare well, for every few minutes the teeth of Mr. Proudfoot were shaken in his head by his horse’s vagaries. He had just reached a point of inordinate subtlety, when the track to Bold branched off, and his animal, recognizing at last the road home, darted down it at a rough gallop. The last seen of the minister of Bold was a massive figure swaying like a ship in a gale, and still, if one might trust the echoes the wind brought back, distinguishing and construing.

Even Mr. Fordyce’s grave face smiled as he watched the fleeing Boanerges.

“He is a wilful man, and he has a wilful beast. But what is this rumour in the countryside, Mr. David? I fear that you are finding Woodilee a dour rig to plough.”

“What do they say in Cauldshaw?”

“I have been little about of late, for these last weeks I’ve been sore troubled with my bowels. I’m like the Psalmist — the Lord trieth my reins in the night watches — and I’ve never made out my visit to you to have a read of Cardanus. But I cannot but hear orra bits of news from the next parish, and the speak in the countryside is that you have uncovered the nakedness of Woodilee and preach siccan sermons that the een of the folk turn inward in their heads. What’s the truth of it, Mr. David? My heart yearns over you as if you were my own mother’s son.”

“I have uncovered a great wickedness — but not yet all. I wait and watch, and when I have fuller knowledge I will know better how to act. You told me the first day we met that Woodilee had an ill reputation, and, sorrow on me! I have proved the justice of your words. And I greatly fear that it is the loudest professors that are deepest in the mire.”

“Man, David, that is a grievous business. Is it the Wood?”

“It is the Wood, and the blackest kind of witchcraft. Some old devilry of the heathen has lingered in that place, and the soul of my miserable parish is thirled to it. You will not find in Scotland a doucer bit, for there are no public sins and shortcomings. Man, there’s times when Woodilee seems as quiet and dead as a kirkyard. But there’s a mad life in its members, and at certain seasons it finds vent. In the deeps of night and in the heart of the Wood there are things done of which it is shameful even to speak.”

“What witness have you?”

“My own eyes. I stumbled upon one of their hellish Sabbaths.”

“God be kind to us! I have heard tell of siccan things, and I have read of them in old books, but I never experienced them. I’m positive they’re not in Cauldshaw, for the place is ower bare and bright and the wind blows ower clean on our braes. There’s no cover for the abominations which must be done in darkness. But I have aye had a scunner of yon Wood. . . . It’s a queer thing the heart of man, Mr. David, and there’s that in my own that whiles terrifies me. The work of redemption is done in an instant, but the job of regeneration is a lifetime’s; and the holiest saint on his death-bed is but a bag of rottenness compared to the purity to which he shall yet attain. And at times I’m tempted to think that our way and the Kirk’s way is not God’s way, for we’re apt to treat the natural man as altogether corrupt, and put him under over~strict pains and penalties, whereas there’s matter in him that might be shaped to the purposes of grace. If there’s original sin, there’s likewise original innocence. When I hear the lassie Katrine Yester singing about the door at Calidon, I have an assurance of God’s goodness as sharp as I ever got in prayer. If you ban this innocent joy it will curdle and sour, and the end will be sin. If young life may not caper on a spring morn to the glory of God, it will dance in the mirk wood to the Devil’s piping.”

Mr. Fordyce stopped short with a rueful face. “That’s for your own ear, Mr. David. If the bruit of what I have said came to the manse of Bold, Mr. Ebenezer would be for delating me to the Presbytery. But if it’s not orthodox it’s good sense.”

“I doubt orthodoxy is no salve against sin,” said David. “The devils, it is written, believe and tremble, and it’s my surmise that the leader of the witches’ coven in Woodilee could stand his ground with Bold himself on matters of doctrine.”

“You have formidable foes.”

“I have a whole parish, for even those who are free of guilt are too timid to lift a hand. Likewise I have my Kirk Session.”

Mr. Fordyce exclaimed.

“And it looks like I will have the Presbytery. I’m in ill odour with Mr. Muirhead for dividing Israel, and to Mr. Proudfoot I smack of heresy.”

“You’ve aye gotten me on your side,” said Mr. Fordyce. “No that I’m much of a fighter, for my bowels melt and my speech sticks in my throat and I sit like a dumb ox, and syne mourn on my bed in the night watches that I have been found wanting. But my heart is with you, Mr. David, and what voice my infirmities permit me, and you’ll be never out of my prayers. . . . Come to Cauldshaw whenever ye long for speech with a friend. I can aye give you sympathy if I canna give you counsel.”

But when David three days later turned his horse in the direction of Cauldshaw, it was not to the manse he went, but to the tower of Calidon. For Katrine Yester had become for him the only light on his path. She personified the cause for which he fought, the fair world that stood in contrast to the obscene shades, and since their last meeting in Paradise she was no longer a flitting wood-nymph, but a woman of flesh and blood and heart. He longed to see her in the house where she dwelt and among her own people.

But there was no Katrine in Calidon that afternoon, for she had gone to the greenwood. It was a still day of July in which no cloud tempered the heat of the sun, but the great upper chamber in the tower was cool and dusky. He asked for Mistress Saintserf, and was received by that grim lady in state, for she kept him waiting while she donned a new toy and kerchief for the occasion. She spoke a Scots as broad as any shepherd’s wife, but the sharp vowels of Edinburgh took the place of the softer Border tones. Large and gaunt and domineering, her high-nosed face and prim mouth were mellowed by an audacious humour. Katrine had clearly never spoken of him (at which he was glad), but she knew him by repute and by his connection with the miller of the Roodfoot. She entertained him with shortcake of her own baking and elder wine of her own brewing, and her tone mingled the deference of a good woman towards a spiritual guide and the freedom of an old woman towards a young man.

“That gilpie o’ mine suld have been here, but she’s awa’ to the hill. As weel try to keep a young juke frae the water as Katrine frae stravaigin’ the countryside. And her bred denty in France and England whaur there are nae hills! If she had a joe [sweetheart] I wad say nocht, but she has nae joe but the whaups.”

He asked concerning Nicholas Hawkshaw.

“And that’s speirin’!” she cried. “He’s fechtin’ and him a lameter, but whaur he’s fechtin’ and in what cause the Lord alone kens! Since he gaed off wi’ Tam Purves three months syne sorrow a word has come frae him. He’s maybe in England and maybe in France, and maybe ryngin’ with Montrose, and I’ll wager, wherever he is, him and his swird and Tam and his firelock are in the het o’t. Ye’ll no fetter a Hawkshaw, and they can nae mair bide in the ae place than a puddock on a brae, as my puir sister that was married on him kenned ower weel. And the same bluid’s in Katrine, wha suld hae been a laddie, and a tinkler laddie, for it’s no her that will mind her seam or watch the pot when the sun’s shinin’. She’s a fine lassie for a’ that, but by ordinar’ forgetfu’. I wish I saw her wed.”

Of Woodilee she had many questions to ask.

“It’s a’ Hawkshaw land, but I never likit the folk. There’s a wheen fosy bodies yonder, wha pray mair with their tongues than their hearts, and they’re as keen at a niffer [bargain] as a Musselburgh wabster — aye wi’ the puir face and the greetin’ word when it comes to payin’ siller. Auld Dobbie in Murchison’s Close — he’s our doer [man of business], ye maun ken, as his father was afore him — he has had mony a sair tuilzie for our bits o’ rents. Now that Nicholas is at the wars it’s my shouther that has to carry the burden, and there’s never a post frae Embro but brings me Dobbie’s scribin’. Ye’ll ken that the mailin’ o’ Crossbasket is to let, and whaur am I to get a guid tenant wi’ the land in siccan a steer?”

David told her the news he had heard at Kirk Aller.

“Keep us a’!” she cried. “God send Nicholas binna wi’ Montrose, or we’ll hae him and Tam Purves here rauvagin’ his ain lands, and if Argyll gets the upper hand they’ll be glorifyin’ God at the end o’ a tow in the Grassmarket. Hech, sir, we’re surely faun on the latter days when, it is written, confusion will be on the people. I’m for the Kirk, but they tell me Montrose is likewise for the Kirk as he conceives it, and between her twa well-wishers it’s like our auld Sion will get uncoly mishandled. But I hae nae broo o’ poalitics. My poalitics is just an auld wife’s poalitics that wants to be left in peace by her fireside. . . . But ye say Montrose is mairchin’ south? He’ll be for England, and that means the road by Aller Water. I’ll hae to kilt my coats and pit the tower o’ Calidon in a state of defence against Nicholas or ony ither, for if I let the laird intil his ain house we’ll hae to answer for’t before the Privy Council.”

It was plain that Mistress Saintserf was not ill-pleased with David, for she talked freely and would hardly let him go.

“Ye’re ower young for the sacred callin’,” she told him when at last he took his leave. “And ye’re ower wise-like a man for a minister. Saunts suld hae weak stomachs, like our ain Mr. Fordyce; it gars them sit loose to earthly affections.”

“I would put up with his affliction if I could get one-half of his goodness,” said David.

“‘Deed that’s weel spoken. I’m sure o’ Heaven if I can get haud o’ the strings of Mr. James’s cloak. Never heed an auld wife’s clavers. Come back and prie our grosarts when they’re ripe, and if ye see that lass o’ mine on the hill tell her I’m waitin’ for her wi’ a besom.”

On his way home David had no sight of Katrine, but the next afternoon he met her in Paradise. She came to him smiling and friendly as a boy.

“You have been to Calidon and seen Aunt Grizel. I congratulate you on your conquest, sir, for my aunt is now your devout partisan and you have won another friend in this countryside. But what is this news of the Lord Marquis?”

They whiled away the summer afternoon with talk, rambling sometimes through the oak glades, but always returning to the nook by the spring, while David kept a jealous eye on the declining sun. The girl must be well on her way to Calidon before the first dusk began. When he came again they did not talk of his troubles, nor even of Montrose, but of little things — her childhood in France, her kin, the tales of the glen, his own youth at Edinburgh College. For she was not an ally so much as a refuge. When he was with her he was conscious that the world was still large and sunlit, the oppression lifted from his spirit, he saw himself not only victor in the quarrel, but a messenger of God with a new gospel to perplexed mankind.

One evening, when he had seen the girl descend through the hazels to the Rood vale, and had turned back towards the shoulder of the Hill of Deer, he saw a man’s figure slanting across the hill as if coming from Melanudrigill. It was Reiverslaw, but though their paths all but intersected the farmer did not stop to talk. He waved a hand in greeting. “Ye suld gie a look in at the Greenshiel,” he shouted. “They tell me Richie Smail is in need of consolation.”

David took the hint, passed word to Richie, and the next evening met Reiverslaw in the herd’s cottage. “Tak’ a look round the faulds, Richie,” said the master. “Me and the minister has something to say to ither,” and the two were left alone in the dim sheiling.

“I’ve been spyin’ oot the land,” said Reiverslaw, “like the lads that Joshua sent afore him into Canaan. I canna say I likit the job, but I’ve been through the Wud east and west, and I’ve found the bit whaur the coven meets aside the auld altar. I think I could find the road till’t on the blackest nicht. And I’ve been speirin’ judeeciously in Woodilee.”

“But surely they did not answer?”

The dark face of the farmer had a crooked grin.

“Trust me, I was discreet. But I’ve a name for takin’ a stoup ower muckle, and when the folk thocht I was fou, my lugs were as gleg as a maukin’s. They’re preparin’ for another Sabbath, and it fa’s on the Lammas Eve. On that nicht you and me maun tak’ the Wud.”

David shivered, and the man saw it.

“The flesh is weak,” he said, “and I’m feelin’ like that mysel’. But you an’ me are no the anes to pit our hand to the plew-stilts and turn back. Mr. Sempill, are ye young enough to speel a tree?”

“I was a great climber as a laddie.”

“Weel, ye’ll hae to be a laddie aince again. And I’ll tell ye mair. Ye’ll hae to leave this place afore the Lammas-tide. Is there ony bit ye can bide at, not abune twenty miles frae Woodilee?”

“There is my cousin at Newbiggin.”

“Weel, to Newbiggin ye gang, and your departure maun be public. Crack about it for days afore. Tell the auld wife at the manse and deave her wi’ your preparations. For, if you’re no oot o’ the parish in guid time, ye’ll be lockit in your chamber, as ye were on the second Beltane. And ye maun be in the Wud that nicht as a witness, for there’s just us twasome, you and me, and we maun be witnesses that the Presbytery and the Sheriff and the Lords in Embro cannot deny.”

“I see that. But have you found out nothing more in Woodilee?”

“I’ve gotten a hantle o’ suspeecions. Man, ye’d wonder to see how chief me and Chasehope are these days. I’ve been ower to see his English bull, and I’ve ta’en his advice about sheep, and I’ve sell’t him a score o’ gimmers at a price that made me voamit. He thinks I’m a dacent, saft, through-ither body, wi’ his wits sair fuddled by strong drink, and has nae back-thochts o’ ane that’s just clay in his hands. . . . Ay, and I’ve been payin’ muckle attention to his hen-house. His wife, ye maun ken, is a notable hen-wife, and she has a red cock that there’s no the like o’ in the countryside. I took Rab Prentice up wi’ me to Chasehope toun, and I bade Rab tak’ special note o’ the red cock.”

“But I do not see the purpose . . . ”

“Ye needna — yet. Ye’ll be tell’t in guid time. I’m thinkin’ o’ the process afore the Presbytery, and it’s witnesses I’m seekin’. I hae twa honest men, my herds Richie Smail and Rab Prentice, but Richie’s ower auld to tak’ the Wud and Hirplin’ Rab wad dee afore he would pit his neb inside it. So there’s just you and me for the chief job, though the ither twa will hae their uses.”

The imminence of the trial made David’s heart sick, for he had now brooded for three months on the mysteries of the Wood, whereas at Beltane he had stumbled upon them in hot blood unwittingly. He was confident in his cause, but he believed most firmly that the Devil in person would be his antagonist, and the cool tones of Reiverslaw struck him with admiration and awe.

“Man, you speak as calm as if you were making ready for a clipping. Is it that you do not believe in the power of Satan?”

“I believe in God,” said the man, “and I’ve seen ower muckle o’ the world no to believe in the Deil. But I’ll no be feared o’ a Deil that misguides auld wives and tak’s up wi’ rotten peats like Chasehope, and though he comes in a brimstane lowe I’ll hae a nick at him.”

Then began for David a time of doubt and heart-searching. He could not share the robust confidence of Reiverslaw, for his memory of Beltane was too clear and he had lived too long under its shadows. His imagination, always quick and easily kindled, ran riot, and he saw the Wood as an abode of horrid mysteries, which spread into subtle ramifications of evil the more he pondered them. His secular learning was so much fuel to this fire. Courage did not fail him, but brightness died out of his world, and he knew himself condemned to tread a dark winepress alone.

It was the thought of Katrine that most disquieted him. The Wood, the whole parish, the very mission on which he was engaged, seemed to him one vast pollution, to be kept hidden for ever from youth and innocence. The girl must not be allowed to come within sight of the skirts of it. There could be no friendship between them, and it was his first duty to warn her.

So when they met in Paradise it was a shamefaced young man that stood before her, a young man with a white face who kept his eyes on the ground and spoke terrible things. Words came unreadily, but his broken speech was more moving than eloquence. He bade her keep to the clean precincts of Calidon and come not even near the greenwood. God’s curse was on the parish, and in the judgment preparing innocent might share with guilty. As for himself, he was no friend for such as she.

“I am too heavily burdened,” he stammered. “I must touch pitch, and my hands will be defiled. I will blight your youth with my dark duties. . . . I will never come again to this place, and I plead with you to come no more, for it is too near the Enemy’s country. . . . Go now, I beg of you, and forget that you have ever seen me and called me friend. You will torture me if you bide. . . . ”

There was more of the same sort, and then David stopped, confident that he had done his purpose, and that no proud girl would linger in the face of such a warning. He waited, very cold and lonely at heart, and he thought he heard her departing feet on the grass.

But when he raised his eyes she had not moved, and her face was smiling.


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