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THE DEVIL'S MISTRESS
IF the story which follows were to be regarded as a work of imagination, it might justly be characterised as too wildly fanciful to deserve even serious consideration. But it is not this: it is an attempt to portray exactly one of the most curious phases of belief or superstition that ever passed over this country, the witchcraft, namely, of the latter part of the seventeenth century. Isabel Goudie was a real person, and her own story of her life in full detail, given voluntarily and under no coercion, is preserved in the archives of the Justiciary Court in Edinburgh. Other contemporary records confirm her account. For example, the illness of Harry Forbes, the minister of Aulderne, is recorded in the Presbytery minutes. The Diary of Lord Brodie is well known. The writings of Father Blackhall may still be picked up; a copy was sold in Paris only last year. The old house of Gordonstown still stands, almost as described in the tale, and in the muniment room are many letters of the Wizard Laird, the remains of whose alchemic furnaces and apparatus are yet to be seen in one of the so-called dungeons, and whose portrait hangs in the drawing-room. The tale of his ride for life with the Devil is still current in Morayshire. Many of the letters of Patrick Innes are in the Seafield Correspondence: others are in my own possession. All the leading characters in the story are actual historic persons, and the incidents told of them vouched by contemporary writings. I have merely set down as truthfully as I could what the actors undoubtedly believed to be unquestionable facts, and must leave it to the reader to decide whether a monstrous delusion swept over the whole country, or whether a strange manifestation of supernatural powers, either evil or good, took place some three centuries ago. In either case, it is an interesting study in the history of human thought.
The recovery of many of the incidents in the tale, and their subsequent confirmation by documents, and much concerning the writing of the book itself, would form exceedingly interesting matter for the Society for Psychical Research; but of this I say nothing at present, preferring that the book should rest merely on its own merits as a record, as nearly accurate as I can make it, of an interesting, important, and little-known period.
AT THE FARM OF LOCHLOY
SOMEWHERE about the middle of the seventeenth century my great-great-great-grandfather—I believe I am right about the number of greats,—the godly Mr. Patrick Innes, was minister of Banff. He was a man of singular piety, or so it was reported. It is a quality rather sporadic than hereditary in the family, and the wickedness of the times grieved him very sorely, for his father, who was a chirurgeon of the good town of Aberdeen, had brought him up very strictly in the tenets of the Reformed faith; and, moreover, his patron, the Earl of Findlater, had entrusted him with the care of two boys, who were rather wild young sparks, notwithstanding the excellent reports that the worthy Mr. Patrick sent home of their conduct.
And in truth there were evil practices in the country then. In spite of the long and godly discourses delivered each Sabbath day from the pulpit, it must be confessed that the morals of the town of Banff were lamentably loose. There were soldiers in the town, and soldiers are proverbially men of godless lives. But then, as in all ages of the world’s history, a uniform was an irresistible attraction to the women, and some of the ladies of Banff actually preferred lonely walks with soldiers on Deveron’s banks, even on the blessed Sabbath day, to the Reverend Mr. Patrick’s sermons; and so they fell into the toils of the Evil One, as might have been expected. And it was a joyous day for the worthy minister when the Provost was moved to purge the town of such evil doings, and order that these shameless hussies should be scourged in the presence of the soldiers, mustered for the purpose, and driven forth of the town. Whence we may conclude that discipline was stricter in those days than now, or that the spirit of soldiers was meeker. For one can scarcely conceive of such a sentence being passed by a civil magistrate of to-day, or being carried out without some demonstration by the men whose sweethearts were thus rudely treated.
That these ill doings arose from the direct instigation of Satan there could indeed be no doubt. For even within Banff itself there were many reputed witches who gathered about Our Lady’s Well near the Kirk of Ordiquhill, and kneeling there—which, of course, was very gross superstition—were enabled by Satan to do deeds of magic art; and especially a vagabond man named John Philp, who had worked cures upon sick people by charming and washing them, by the aid of the Devil, and had been put in the stocks and thereafter was justly burned at the Market Cross of Banff.
It was not without reason that Mr. Patrick was perturbed, for it was barely twenty years since terrible doings had been brought to light in the neighbouring county of Moray. Indeed, in spite of all the godly discipline of the holy Kirk, it seemed as though the Devil were gaining greater power over the souls and bodies of men than ever before.
Mr. Patrick was a frequent visitor both in Nairn and Forres, when he went to take part in the half-yearly sacramental meetings, and, it was said, preached with great acceptance for some two hours at a time.
It was at these meetings, and at the gatherings of the ministers and elders thereafter, that he heard at first hand from men who were well acquainted with the facts of the curious stories that shall here be set down. His old friend Mr. Harry Forbes, the minister of Aulderne, had taken an active part in some of the happenings, and knew of his own experience of the power and work of the arch-enemy of mankind. So that there could be no possible doubt of the truth of these terrible things. Matters indeed, as Mr. Patrick was very well certified, were rapidly gathering to a head, as had been foretold. The forces of evil were mustering for the great trial of strength against the hosts of the Lord, represented, as everyone knows, by the true Protestant Kirk of Scotland. So that there could be no doubt that the end was at hand, and the Battle of Armageddon and the final triumph of the righteous and the end of the world could not be far distant.
The world still survives, but I make no doubt that my great-great-great-grandfather would find that the end was only slightly postponed.
The story that follows has been of necessity pieced together from very many sources, but in its main lines it may be read by the curious in the archives of the Court of Justiciary. And there is also abundant documentary evidence to prove that my great-great-great-grandfather had not invented the tale from hatred of the power and domination of Satan, which was only natural to his cloth and his exemplary piety, or from sheer love of the marvellous.
Anyone who in those days journeyed eastward from Nairn, following the northern road near the coast towards the woods of Brodie, came after a couple of miles or so to the farm-steading of Lochloy. A dreary, forsaken-looking place it was, though there was some fairly fertile cornland on the landward side. The farmhouse was thatched, with low whitewashed walls and small windows; the byres and stables abutted so close on the house that the reek of them unavoidably filled the rooms day and night; the thatch let in water, and in places the walls were soaked and grew a slimy moss that was half fungus and smelt vilely. Yet John Gilbert, the tenant, was deemed a most excellent man, industrious and thrifty, many said close-fisted, and withal an elder of the Kirk, and most exemplary in his attendance every Sabbath and his enforcing of discipline on man and maid. But he was a dour and gloomy man, and stubborn as a mule when he took an idea in his head, and rather than do a hand’s turn to the repair of his house he would have suffered any manner of inconvenience. It was his landlord’s business, and he could not see why he should do it. Mr. Hay, the laird of Lochloy and Park, did not see that he was bound to repair Gilbert’s house; moreover, he had no money to do it with. Moreover again—and this perhaps weighed a good deal with him—Gilbert’s wife had snubbed him definitely and distinctly, and he was a man very full of his own importance, and not apt to take a snub.
The muirland stretched between the farmhouse and the sea, and the long dreary mere whence it took its name gleamed sullen and stagnant, and the cries of the thronging waterfowl on its bosom sounded inexpressibly mournful. To right and left as you looked from the house door, the miry broken road wandered between the muir and the cornfields. Gilbert’s carts went along it, and his cattle traversed it morning and evening, going to and returning from their pastures, but foot of stranger rarely passed that way, now that the laird no longer rode by Lochloy. Time was when his sorrel nag took the muirland road almost of her own accord. Not indeed for any love that Hay of Lochloy and Park bore to his tenant John Gilbert. For the laird was a genial, convivial soul, loving wine and good company, and especially loving pretty women, and the dour, penurious old farmer was little to his taste. But on one point he was mightily curious, what on earth had ever induced Mistress Isabel Goudie to marry John Gilbert; and to solve the question he rode often past the farm, timing his visits, however, to the hours when he knew that John would be busy on some distant fields.
And indeed others beside the laird had speculated on that same question. For Mistress Isabel, who was the daughter of a country lawyer, was exceptionally well educated for her time and class. She read much, played fairly well on the spinnet, and could dance a minuet as well as any lady in the land. Her father had been brought up a papist, but, having little conviction one way or another, had no scruple in giving his adherence to the true Protestant Kirk of Scotland, and thus retained his business and his prosperity. His daughter preserved a certain partiality for the ritual of the old faith. But this same being as everyone knows a damnable heresy, and placing one in danger of hell-fire, as well as the more palpable danger of loss of property and reputation, possibly even of bonds and imprisonment, she carefully concealed any leanings she might have had in that direction, and dutifully went to kirk with her father, and slept peacefully through the minister’s discourse. In person she was strangely unlike the women of the farmer class in the province of Moray, being tall and slight, with a mass of flaming red hair, deep brown eyes that seemed as though brooding over hidden fires, dark eyebrows almost straight in a face that seemed unnaturally pale, a slightly arched nose, and full red lips. What could there possibly be in common between her and John Gilbert, the grim, heavy, untidy farmer, with his ragged hair and unshaven chin, his clothes rarely changed save when he donned his rusty black on the Sabbath day to officiate as elder at the plate at the Kirk of Aulderne, and listen to the edifying discourses of Master Harry Forbes the minister thereof?
Hay of Lochloy and Park wondered, and turned the matter over in his mind. In truth, Mistress Isabel’s personality pleased him far more than he pleased her. She had refinement and a sense of breeding much above her class and position, and he was in nature coarser even than the average seventeenth-century laird. Still, he was the laird, and had power to do much; the house badly needed repair, and she was not sorry that he should see it. She might persuade him to make them more comfortable; he seemed not disinclined to do something. But his interest in the house and farm resolved itself into openly expressed admiration for herself, and a hint of the price she could pay for his assistance. The sordidness of the bargain revolted her—the bloated red face of the laird, and his hot breath that smelt of drink even thus early in the day, disgusted her, and she spoke sharply, unwisely it might be. Then with a hiccupping laugh he tried to kiss her, and she smacked his face and turned back into the house, seeing only the red face blazing with anger, and the wig knocked awry by her blow. “Beast!” she muttered. “Oh, a very beast! May you never have male child to come after you!”
So it was that the laird rode no more along the road by Lochloy, and the house was unrepaired, and the rotting couples of the roof sagged and cracked till it was a marvel how it held together at all. John Gilbert had a fat bag of money hidden somewhere, but his wife was not privy to the place of concealment, and well she knew that not one penny Scots would he expend on his house; nor even might she buy a new gown, though she had brought him a fair tocher, and for very shame of her rusty clothes she went seldom to a town, but walked far into the country and among the woods and muirs.
Seldom, too, came any neighbours to visit at Lochloy. Mistress Isabel was not of their class, and they knew it and resented her superiority, and perhaps for this reason whispered venomously among themselves concerning the laird’s frequent ridings on the Lochloy road, and hinted at good reasons why he came no longer openly. Only Janet Broadhead came occasionally, full of tales of adventure and romance, picked up the Lord knows where, which only served to make the realities of life seem more dreary and sordid than ever.
There was really no great mystery about Mistress Isabel’s marriage, though certainly the pair seemed strangely incongruous; it was a purely commercial matter. Her father the lawyer chanced to owe Gilbert a round sum of money, which at the time it was inconvenient to pay; Gilbert had the idea, not uncommon in his class, that he could raise his social position by marriage. Mistress Isabel was clearly his superior, and, moreover, was well liked by many of the local lairds and their families, so the bargain was struck. Daughters in those days were dutiful, and she raised no objections. If there had been thrills and tremors when some good-looking young soldier saluted her in passing, they were all set on one side; her father’s debt was not spoken of any more, and she settled down with such content as she could muster into the position of a farmer’s wife.
But it did not work out as Gilbert hoped. The wife of the dour old farmer was a different person from the lawyer’s daughter; the lairds forgot her, and the farmers’ wives resented her beauty and accomplishments. To Gilbert she was as much a stranger as when he had first bargained for her hand; honestly she had tried to win him, but he felt and hated her fastidious refinement, and the more she strove to bring him to some outward semblance of decency in dress and manner, the more uncouth he grew, from sheer perversity.
All these things drifted vaguely through her mind as she stood at the farmhouse door watching the autumn sunset flaming over the hills beyond Inverness, and touching into glory the roofs and towers of Nairn.
“Bought and sold!” she mused bitterly, “and now alone all the rest of my life.”
There was the ill-will of Hay of Lochloy to reckon with now, and he was not a man it was safe to offend. A rich and influential man himself, and the Brodies too were his near kin, for his aunt had married the Thane of Brodie, and was the mother of seven stalwart sons, every one of whom had become a laird.
“Beast!” she said again. “A very beast! He will persecute us now. Oh, for a chance to be even with him!”
She longed for Janet Broadhead to come in and gossip, for Janet was a great teller of stories, and Isabel listened greedily to tales of wild adventure that afterwards made her own life look so grey and colourless that almost she wished Janet had never come. But now days had passed with no sign of her friend, and she longed once more to revel even in fancy in that bright life of stir and excitement that was reality living. She was prepared to pay the price of the reaction to the dull stagnation which must surely follow. It was like dram-drinking; the graphically told stories set her blood tingling in her veins, brought a flush to her cheek, and made her limbs quiver deliciously. All which goes to prove, as the godly Master Harry Forbes said long afterwards, how subtle are the snares of the arch-enemy of mankind; for had she but listened to pious discourses ordained to be preached every Sabbath, she would have found therein a sure remedy for these restless feelings that so disquieted her. But of a truth, as everyone knows, the Devil is the begetter of all papists, and cannot endure with patience the teachings of the true Protestant Kirk of Scotland.
The shadows of night swept over the Laigh of Moray, long lines of mist veiled the fertile lands of Culben, and from the dreary mere arose a flight of wild-fowl winging their way towards the Buckie Loch. The men and horses had long returned from their work; she could hear the cattle moving in the byre. Every day was the repetition of the day before, and every day would be the same, till at last the turf of Aulderne kirkyard closed over her.
Only Gilbert was late. Unusually late. She began to long for his coming in a queer unaccustomed way. The spirit of adventure was in her blood. Could she rouse that dull, heavy man, whose soul knew but two interests, the Kirk and his money bags? Somewhere in him there must be passions that could be wakened. Even if he should turn and rend her, it would break the dull, deadly monotony.
With feverish eagerness she turned indoors and unlocked the heavy oaken kist she had brought with her when first she came to the lonely farmstead. Old bits of finery, many of which had been given to her by the county ladies, the wives of lairds for whom her father acted, and which she fondly hoped to wear at assemblies at Nairn or Forres, or even, with good fortune, at Brodie Castle itself. How they roused old memories, and now to be used to try and fascinate that rough, sullen old farmer.
Hesitating somewhat, she took out a dainty shimmering thing that had once been used as a bedgown by a French marquise when Louise XIV. first came to the throne, when Anne of Austria was Regent, and great ladies, according to the scandalous fashion of the time, received their friends and admirers in bed in the early hours of the morning; from her it had passed to a cadet of the gay and gallant house of Gordon, and been given to Isabel on her marriage,
Hastily she began to loosen the rough homespun gown she wore, when she heard John Gilbert’s heavy foot tramp over the threshold; she laughed softly to herself, the spirit of coquetry possessed her, she would not go to meet him, he should want her, call for her, then she would appear in all the glory of the French robe and subjugate him entirely.
It was now long past the usual supper time, and supper was set out in the kitchen. He walked heavily in and sat down in silence; she heard him pour out a great tankard of beer and begin to eat noisily; he did not seem to notice her absence. She was piqued, and grew angry. Night after night she had wished him away, had longed for quiet and solitude; now, strangely, she wanted him. In her girlhood she knew she could draw men as she would with a casual glance, a lift of an eyebrow, a turn of a shoulder, and they came and went where she would, while she feigned indifference or surprise, and sent them about their business. Tonight she desired to try the old power once more; and John Gilbert ate stolidly.
At last she could bear it no more; she opened the door and looked out into the kitchen. John was smoking before the fire, his grey hair was matted and a week’s growth was on his cheeks and chin, his clothes, heavy with the sweat of men and horses and the reek of the byre, smelt vilely; he certainly was not an attractive object. It mattered not, he was a man, he must feel her power, since there was no other man available.’
“Are you not coming to bed, John?” she called softly.
He looked round and saw but her face looking from the door, and that only dimly, for the light was almost gone.
“No,” he said, “I am not; I must be afoot early to-morrow, before sunrise; I shall lie in the byre.”
The rebuff smote her like a blow on the face, but only spurred her resolve to conquer him. The magic of her femininity had been potent enough in old days, and truly she looked a dainty figure now in her shimmering night robe, that might have well beguiled the heart out of a man’s breast. But as the godly Master Harry Forbes was wont to say, such things were a snare of the Devil, and not to be tolerated in the holy Protestant Kirk.
John Gilbert looked up with a dull stare in his small cunning eyes under their shaggy, grey eyebrows.
“What is this foolishness?” he growled.
She came forward bravely, swallowing her nausea at the man, and crouched on the floor by the fire, laying one long, white arm across his knees.
“John,” she said, and there was a soft coo in her voice recalling the note of a wood-pigeon at nesting time, “come to me to-night. I am tired and lonely, and the owls are hooting fearsomely.”
He jerked himself away from her, and swept her arm off his knee.
“Get ye to bed, ye besom; and learn to dress like a God-fearing Christian woman, and not a French strumpet. And, hark ye! I’ll have ye to the kirk on Sabbath. No more pretence of headache and sickness; and ye shall go decently apparelled as becometh the wife of a ruling elder. Now get ye to bed, and trouble me no more, or by this and that ye shall do penance in the face of the congregation, ye accursed papist.”
Sullenly he lumbered to his feet, pushing her from him, and tramped out of the door; she heard him open and close the door of the byre.
One moment she stood by the dying fire looking like a beautiful statue, with one arm raised as if in denunciation. Her spells had failed. The magic of beauty and of sex availed nothing against brutish stupidity.
“Oh, for power!” she ejaculated out loud. “I will not be crushed. Why should I waste all my youth, and never know a moment’s joy. Must I die before I have ever lived?”
She turned back into the bedroom, and threw the despised finery back into the kist. The full moon shone through the little window; Isabel was hot and feverish, and the cool night air was grateful and refreshing as it bathed her long, lithe body.
She leant from the window and recalled Janet Broadhead’s stories. Others there were who had adventures, whose lives were full of colour. Might she not perchance share in some of these wild doings, and live, though it were but for a few days? Out to the west, Dunbar of Durris ruled at Grangehill, and the Dunbars were a wild crew and little given to scruples of any sort. And beyond again lay the lands of Culben. Little troubled was Kinnaird of Culben with kirk or minister. Even on every blessed Sabbath day he and his grieve would sit at the cards while the cracked bell from the township of Findhorn called them to listen to the preaching. She would gladly go and play with the laird, for indeed she could hold a very pretty hand at the cards. And farther out and away, beyond the Broch, Sir Robert Gordon of Gordonstown hobnobbed with the Devil himself. Many were Janet’s tales of this Sir Robert. He had lost his shadow, so it was said, when he studied magic at Salamanca in Spain, and only just now after years of labour he had made a creature out of the fire who did his bidding in everything. And then again, after one night’s frost, he drove over Loch Spynie on the ice in his old chariot and four black horses.
As she thought of Sir Robert, for no reason whatsoever, for she had never seen him, waves of heat and cold seemed to rush over her, she flushed and panted, and her heartbeats were almost audible. How glorious it would be, she thought, to sit beside him there in his coach, while the coal-black horses flew through the night. To look down and see John Gilbert who had scorned her, Hay of Lochloy who had made insulting love to her, Harry Forbes who had preached at her, and pour her scorn upon them, send Sir Robert’s fire-creature to torment them. Sir Robert would let her do what she willed, of that she was sure. He would be a most gallant and desirable lover.
Her slender body writhed and twisted with excitement. It was mad, unreasoning, but she cared not. In fancy she must let herself go. Then succeeded a wave of unreasonable dread. Who were these spectres that would drag her down into the depths? They seemed closing round her, taking possession of her. She must escape somehow. Then suddenly, and for no reason, there came before her the fair face of the Lady Jean Gordon, who had been kind to her in old days, who had knelt beside her at Mass in the time before her father had joined the Protestant Kirk, the only one of her old friends who had taken the trouble to take a whole day’s journey to the lonely farm on Lochloy to visit Isabel and wish her well, and had given her a tiny gold crucifix, which now remained sewn into the breast of her homespun gown, between the stuff and the lining, where none might see it.
And now Lady Jean was to be married, so she had heard, to a young soldier of the House of Hamilton; but because they were both papists there was impending trouble, and they might have to go and live in France on nothing but a soldier’s meagre pay. A wave of pity came over her for her friend, but a wave of envy also for one who had love and life before her.
“Oh, for power!” she sighed once more. “How lovely I would make life for them! How helpless I am!”
The night air struck her with a strange chill, and she crept into bed weary but calm, and with all the fever gone for the moment, and slept soundly.
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