The Keeper of Cademuir by John Buchan
The gamekeeper of Cademuir strode in leisurely fashion over the
green side of the hill. The bright chilly morning was past, and the
heat had all but begun; but he had lain long a-bed, deeming that life
was too short at the best, and there was little need to hurry it over.
He was a man of a bold carriage, with the indescribable air of one
whose life is connected with sport and rough moors. A steady grey eye
and a clean chin were his best features; otherwise, he was of the
ordinary make of a man, looking like one born for neither good nor evil
in any high degree. The sunlight danced around him, and flickered among
the brackens; and though it was an everyday sight with him, he was
pleased, and felt cheerful, just like any wild animal on a bright day.
If he had had his dog with him, he would have sworn at it to show his
pleasure; as it was, he contented himself with whistling 'The Linton
Ploughman', and setting his heels deep into the soft green moss.
The day was early and his way was long, for he purposed to go up
Manor Water to the shepherd's house about a matter of some foxes. It
might be ten miles, it might be more; and the keeper was in no great
haste, for there was abundant time to get his dinner and a smoke with
the herd, and then come back in the cool of the evening; for it was
summer-time, when men of his class have their holiday. Two miles more,
and he would strike the highway; he could see it even now coiling
beneath the straight sides of the glen. There it was easy walking, and
he would get on quickly; but now he might take his time. So he lit his
pipe, and looked complacently around him.
At the turn of the hill, where a strip of wood runs up the slope, he
stopped, and a dark shadow came over his face. This was the place
where, not two weeks ago, he had chased a poacher, and but for the
fellow's skill in doubling, would have caught him. He cursed the whole
tribe in his heart. They were the bane of his easy life. They came at
night, and took him out on the bleak hillside when he should have been
in his bed. They might have a trap there even now. He would go and see,
for it was not two hundred yards from his path.
So he climbed up the little howe in the hill beside the firwood,
where the long thickets of rushes, and the rabbit-warrens made a happy
hunting-ground for the enemies of the law. A snipe or two flew up as he
approached, and a legion of rabbits scurried into their holes. He had
all but given up the quest, when the gleam of something among the long
grass caught his attention, and in a trice he had pulled back the
herbage, and disclosed a neatly set and well-constructed trap.
It was a very admirable trap. He had never seenone like it; so in a
sort of angry exultation, as he thought of how he would spoil this fine
game, he knelt down to examine it. It was no mere running noose, but of
strong steel, and firmly fixed to the trunk of an old tree. No unhappy
pheasant would ever move it, were its feet once caught in its strong
teeth. He felt the iron with his hand, feeling down the sides for the
spring; when suddenly with a horrid snap the thing closed on him,
pinning his hand below the mid-finger, and he was powerless.
The pain was terrible, agonising. His hand burned like white fire,
and every nerve of his body tingled. With his left hand he attempted to
loosen it, but the spring was so well concealed, that he could not find
it. Perhaps, too, he may have lost his wits, for in any great suffering
the brain is seldom clear. After a few minutes of feeble searching and
tugging, every motion of which gave agony to his imprisoned hand, he
gave it up, and in something very like panic, sought for his knife to
try to cut the trap loose from the trunk. And now a fresh terror
awaited him, for he found that he had no knife; he had left it in
another coat, which was in his room at home. With a sigh of infinite
pain, he stopped the search, and stared drearily before him.
He confusedly considered his position. He was fixed with no
possibility of escape, some two miles from the track of any chance
passer-by. They would not look for him at home until the evening, and
the shepherd at Manor did not know of his coming. Someone might be on
the hill, but then this howe was on a remote side where few ever came,
unless their duty brought them. Below him in the valley was the road
with some white cottages beside it. There were women in those houses,
living and moving not far from him; they might see him if he were to
wave something as a signal. But then, he reflected with a groan, that
though he could see their dwellings, they could not see him, for he was
hidden by the shoulder of the hill.
Once more he made one frantic effort to escape, but it was
unsuccessful. Then he leant back upon the heather, gnawing his lips to
help him to endure the agony of the wound. He was a strong man, broad
and sinewy, and where a weaker might have swooned, he was left to
endure the burden of a painful consciousness. Again he thought of
escape. The man who had set the trap must come to see it, but it might
not be that day, nor the next. He pictured his friends hunting up and
down Manor Water, every pool and wood; passing and re-passing not two
hundred yards from where he was lying dead, or worse than dead. His
mind grew sick at the thought, and he had almost fainted in spite of
Then he fell into a panic, the terror of rough 'hard-handed men,
which never laboured in their mind.' His brain whirled, his eyes were
stelled, and a shiver shook him like a reed. He puzzled over his past
life, feeling, in a dim way, that it had not been as it should be. He
had been drunk often; he had not been over-careful of the name of the
Almighty; was not this some sort of retribution? He strove to pray, but
he could think of no words. He had been at church last Sunday, and he
tried to think of what he had heard; but try as he would, nothing came
to his mind, but the chorus of a drinking-song he had often heard sung
in the public-house at Peebles:
When the hoose is rinnin' round about,
It's time eneuch to flit;
For we've lippened aye to Providence,
And sae will we yet.
The irony of the words did not strike him; but fervently,
feverishly, he repeated them, as if for the price of his soul.
The fit passed, and a wild frenzy of rage took him. He cursed like a
fiend, and yelled horrible menaces upon the still air. If he had the
man who set this trap, he would strangle the life out of him here on
this spot. No, that was too merciful. He would force his arm into the
trap, and take him to some lonely place where never a human being came
from one year's end to the other. Then he would let him die, and come
to gloat over his suffering. With every turn of his body he wrenched
his hand, and with every wrench, he yelled more madly, till he lay back
exhausted, and the green hills were left again in peace.
Then he slept a sleep which was half a swoon, for maybe an hour,
though to him it seemed like ages. He seemed to be dead, and in
torment; and the place of his torment was this same hillside. On the
brae face, a thousand evil spirits were mocking his anguish, and not
only his hand, but his whole body was imprisoned in a remorseless trap.
He felt the keen steel crush through his bones, like a spade through a
frosted turnip. He woke screaming with nameless dread, looking on every
side for the infernal faces of his dreams, but seeing nothing but a
little chaffinch hopping across the turf.
Then came for him a long period of slow, despairing agony. The hot
air glowed, and the fierce sun beat upon his face. A thousand insects
hummed about him, bees and butterflies and little hillmoths. The
wholesome smell of thyme and bent was all about him, and every now and
then a little breeze broke the stillness, and sent a ripple over the
grass. The genial warmth seemed stifling; his head ached, and his
breath came in sudden gasps. An overpowering thirst came upon him, and
his tongue was like a burnt stick in his mouth. Not ten feet off, a
little burn danced over a minute cascade. He could see the dust of
spray, which wet the cool green rushes. The pleasant tinkle sang in his
ears, and mocked his fever. He tried to think of snow and ice and cold
water, but his brain refused to do its part, and he could get nothing
but an intolerable void.
Far across the valley, the great forehead of Dollar Law raised
itself, austere and lofty. To his unquiet sight, it seemed as if it
rolled over on Scrape, and the two played pranks among the lower hills
beyond. The idea came to him, how singularly unpleasant it would be for
the people there--among them a shepherd to whom he owed two pounds. He
would be crushed to powder, and there would be no more of the debt at
any rate. Then a text from the Scriptures came to haunt him, something,
he could scarce tell exactly, about the hills and mountains leaping
like rams. Here it was realised before his very eyes. Below him, in the
peaceful valley, Manor Water seemed to be wrinkled across it, like a
scrawl from the pen of a bad writer. When a bird flew past, or a hare
started from its form, he screamed with terror, and all the wholesome
sights of a summer day were wrought by his frenzied brain into terrible
phantoms. So true is it that Natura Benigna and Natura Maligna may walk
hand in hand upon the same hillside.
Then came the time when the strings of the reason are all but
snapped, and a man becomes maudlin. He thought of his young wife, not
six weeks married, and grieved over her approaching sorrow. He wept
unnatural tears, which, if any one had been there to see him, would
have been far more terrible than his frantic ravings. He pictured to
himself in gruesome detail, the finding of his body, how his wife would
sob, and his friends would shake their heads, and swear that he had
been an honest fellow, and that it was a pity that he was away. The
place would soon forget him; his wife would marry again; his dogs would
get a new master, and he--ay, that was the question, where would he be?
and a new dread took him, as he thought of the fate which might await
him. The unlettered man, in his times of dire necessity, has nothing to
go back upon but a mind full of vivid traditions, which are the most
merciless of things.
It might be about three or four o'clock, but by the clock in his
brain it was weeks later, that he suffered that last and awful pain,
which any one who has met it once, would walk to the end of the earth
to avoid. The world shrank away from him; his wits forsook him; and he
cried out, till the lonely rocks rang, and the whaups mingled their
startled cries with his. With a last effort, he crushed down his head
with his unwounded hand upon the tree-trunk, till blessed
unconsciousness took him into her merciful embrace.
At nine o'clock that evening, a ragged, unshorn man, with the look
of one not well at ease with the world, crept up the little plantation.
He had a sack on his back for his ill-gotten plunder, and a mighty
stick in case of a chance encounter. He visited his traps, hidden away
in little nooks, where no man might find them, and it would have seemed
as if trade were brisk, for his sack was heavy, and his air was
cheerful. He looked out from behind the dyke at his last snare
carefully, as behoved one in danger; and then with a start he crouched,
for he saw the figure of a man.
There was no doubt about it; it was his bitterest enemy, the keeper
of Cademuir. He made as if to crawl away, when by chance he looked
again. The man lay very still. A minute later he had rushed forward
with a white face, and was working as if for his life.
In half an hour two men might have been seen in that little glen.
One, with a grey, sickened face, was gazing vacantly around him, with
the look of some one awakened from a long sleep. By dint of much toil,
and half a bottle of brandy, he had been brought back from what was
like to have been the longest sleep he had ever taken. Beside him on
the grass, with wild eyes, sat the poacher, shedding hysterical tears.
'Dae onything ye like wi' me,' he was saying, 'kick me or kill me, an'
am ready. I'll gang to jail wi' ye, to Peebles or the Calton, an' no
say a word. But oh--! ma God, I thocht ye were bye wi't.'