The Wall

One of Britain’s most able career diplomats, ARCHIBALD CLARK KERR, Lord Inverchapel, who was a familiar figure at the Big Three Conferences at Teheran, Yalta, and Potsdam, entered the British diplomatic service in 1906. With time out for his enlistment in the Scots Guards in the First World War. he served with increasing distinction for the next four decades. He was successively Ambassador in Baghdad, '35-'38. in China, '38-'42, in Moscow, '42-'45, and in Washington. '46-'48. Now he has retired to his native heath in Scotland to farm.

by LORD INVERCHAPEL

IT WAS as long ago as 1921 that we perceived the first signs of anxiety in Christina Macnab. She tended to desert her pantry and to hover about us as we worked, peering down at us from the terrace, shaking her brindled head and mumbling to herself in the Gaelic. All three of us, old Dougald the expert, Wattie, and Himself, had enough of that now-dying language to understand that, whilst she did not object to a dry stane dyke — a wall built without mortar —in principle, she had grave misgivings about the spot upon which ours was rising from the ground. She would not tell us why. All she would say was that the wall would never stand up there. Yet it was there that it had to be built. Otherwise the cobbled terrace in front of the house, where we liked to sun ourselves on balmy summer evenings, would have slid into Loch Eck.

Amongst ourselves we affected to scofl at Christina’s forebodings, saying that she was fey, like all the Macnabs. Nevertheless, when unobserved, even old Dougald, the expert dry stane dyker, tucked here and there a surreptitious trowelful of cement into the chinks between the silvery whinstones, thus sinning against all the traditions that shaped the high art of dry stane dyking. Stealthy we were and shamefaced. But we assured ourselves that where we lapsed from honest tradition there we got more strength and that, in any case, no one would notice. But Christina did and there was scorn in her voice when she cried at us: “Ye’re daft tae build you wa’ there. It’ll come doon on ye. Bide a wee an’ see.” There was something about her earnestness and persistence that was disturbing and left us slightly hangdog, but defiant.

And so the wall went up, seven feet of it from its base to the level of the cobbled terrace. And above that, one and a half more, with a broad flat top, just the right height to sit upon with ease and security. It swept boldly along the whole forty yards of the terrace until, at the south end, it turned at right angles and plunged into the hillside. And the wall, with its massiveness, its stony, silvery grace and dignity and, as the time went on, its usefulness, became important in our quiet Highland life, more particularly the strip in front of the house. These sixteen yards were soon a sort of gathering place in fair weather. A place in which to debate problems, to receive guests and exchange gossip, to arrange flowers. And there, now and then, kilted but, as ever, without a shirt, Himself was to be seen, decanting his fragrant claret and holding up the glittering cut glass to the westering sun, with a look of happy expectance in his eye.

“Let us leave it there until dinnertime,” he would say. “It looks so nice and the sun will take the chill off it.”

The years rattled by and it was clear that the wall was there to stay. It had become, as it were, symbolic of the stability of the place. Christina had long since fallen into silence. And every time he came home from exile Himself seemed able to arrange the season so that he sat on the wall with his claret and let the sun warm his back.

And now full twenty years and more had passed when there came to him in Moscow a telegram. It was from Christina. “Come home at once,” it said, “the wee witch is in the wall.” So that was what had lain behind her warnings, now two decades old — warnings that we had laughed off and long forgotten. Himself was impressed by her use of the definite article. She called it the witch (why not a witch?), implying that the existence of this devil’s votary was not unknown to him; whereas in fact Christina’s antennae alone had been sensitive enough to feel her presence and her malevolence.

The call home, this cry from Christina’s good heart, was strong. But it had to be resisted. The gnawing at the vitals of his curiosity and of his patience had to be borne. Himself had certain duties whose call was stronger still. The Russians were at their lowest ebb. The Germans were clawing at the defenses of Moscow from no more than sixty miles away. The wee witch must go hang until the ebb was spent and the tide was flowing surely towards victory. Thus, for more than a year, she was left to weave her evil magic undisturbed.

2

I WAS not until deep into ‘43 that Himself could snatch a couple of days at home. The witch had won a handsome battle. It had cost her twenty years of scheming, pushing, and heaving to get the wall to stir, but once she had it on the move she must have been gratified at the speed and completeness of the havoc she wrought. Twenty good yards of it lay heaped in a silvery mass amongst the boles of the limes — or lindens — below it. The rest of it bulged and toppled drunkenly towards the end of the terrace. Gone were those kindly flat and useful whinstones upon which Himself had been wont to sit, to sun his spine and to play the cellarman. A tragic spectacle!

As he pondered this sorry mess he felt beside him the quiet presence of Christina, now old Christina and unsure of her feet on the cobblestones. She behaved with all discretion and dignity. There was none of the direct and triumphant “I told you so” about what she said. She merely observed that she had always felt it to be imprudent in us to put the wall just where we had put it.

“Ye thocht it was only ma blether,” she went on, “but I kenned a’ along that the dyke was richt i’ the road o’ the wee witch. Course she pu’ed it doon. It fashed her.”

“What do you mean, Christina, right in the road of the wee witch?”

“The road she taks from the march,” and she waved a hand towards the south boundary.

“Which way does she go— north or south?”

“Witches always gae north,” she said with an emphasis and a tone of sharp reproach, as though Himself ought to have had the learning to know, as he surely should have, that witches always went north.

She felt that she had said enough, for she turned away and hobbled towards the house. Himself’s curiosity was pricked and he followed her with further questions, but more he could not wring from her. She broke again into the Gaelic, into which he could not pursue her, for she took refuge in words that were beyond his slender vocabulary. As she disappeared into the house she shot a glance at him, touched indeed with pity for him in his distress, but holding too, it seemed to him, a gleam of something like Schadenfreude. After all, had she not waited for twenty years to see her dark presage proven?

Himself did not make another escape until last year, when he got home again to find the whinstones still piled amongst the lime tree trunks. No longer silvery, but weathered over with a fine green moss. Undaunted and feeling cussed but incontinent, he set about building the wall again. Honor, pride, or what you will demanded it. He had been through loo many battles easily to accept defeat. Old Dougald the expert was dead. Wattie was away with the forestry, but Gavin and wee Archie, his sons, and Effgenii the Muscovite were enrolled in a new team. By common consent Effgenii soon became the master dyker. Pick and spade speedily showed that the foundation of 1921 had tipped over, cocking itself up against the slope, away from the terrace and towards the lime trees below. We gazed at the mole-like burrowing of the wee witch with wonderment and some sneaking admiration. We determined that she must be a creature of uncommon parts, a very daughter of Gogmagog. The respect we felt reflected itself in the rich quantities of cement that went into the new foundation.

In two weeks twelve yards of new wall had risen to take the place of the old when Himself was called back to duty and the work had to stop. If you had been there and had looked at the stretch of it in front of the house, patted it with your hands, sat upon it and appraised it, you would have declared with us all that it was there for good, witch or no witch. All the more so because, to make assurance double sure, Himself had set up, in a neat little niche, a small image of the Madonna in Nevers pottery of the eighteenth century, one of several that, as an already acquisitive boy, he had filched for a few francs from farmhouse chimney pieces in the Garden of France.

Then too you would have taken part in the solemn ceremony of inauguration and exorcism. No bell, book, and candle, it is true, nor any beatings with a “hazell wand cut upon a Sabboth daie before sunrising,” but all else that promised to make the exorcising appropriate and effective. And before the ceremony you would certainly have joined Himself in his search through his large and higgledy-piggledy library for a folio of the sixteenth century — The Discouerie of Witchcraft, by one Reginald Scot; and you would have rejoiced with him on finding in it something like a formula by Ovid, designed “to spoile a theefe, a witch or any other enimie,” as Scot has it — Terque senem flamma, ter aqua, ter sulphur lustrat.1 This gave Himself a line and he did not think that much more could be done to rid the place of the witch, unless he could lay hands on her and pitch her into the loch. The verb “to pitch” was uncommon in his everyday idiom and it seemed to us that, since he had begun to shape in his mind an invocation for the ceremony of exorcism, his tongue had tended to run upon words that rhymed with “witch.” There is only a handful. You try for yourself.

3

IT WAS on a warm August evening that we gathered before the new wall. There was quite a big band of us — Wattie, Gavin and wee Archie, Effgenii the Muscovite, Hamish Campbell and his housekeeper from the farm, Hughie the shepherd, Hector MacNair from over the loch, and Angus the bus driver, who had paused on his last journey up the road to see the fun, and had brought with him four or five of his passengers as gate-crashers, because neither he nor they saw why they should miss it either. Wattie had draped the house with bunting, Not, as might have been thought, to add to the solemnity of the exorcism, but in honor of another event. Himself had had quite a busy day. He had been by road to Edinburgh, a hundred miles away, to get married; and as he greeted the crowd with his bride, a little cheer rippled through it, gaining in volume when it was perceived that her fair face was no new one.

The sun had slipped behind the hill across the loch but was still washing with gold the tall alp that leapt skyward on the other side of the house. A glance satisfied Himself that, in his chance absence in Edinburgh, his orders had been faithfully carried out. Three piles of nameless powder topped the large flat stone over the Madonna’s niche; three water vessels were at hand; a platoon of champagne bottles (Ayala 1919, flattish now, but all the house could bring forth) and glasses gave the wall a look of unaccustomed brightness. A slip of paper was to be seen in Himself s hand.

The air was warm and still. Multitudes of ephemerae, called midges for short, began to stab the guests and the guests began to scratch. Was this the last shaft from the wee witch’s poisonous quiver? The hour had struck. A sizzling match was put to the piles of powder. They flared noisily with a bright yellow flame. Everyone said “ Aaah! ” Three cupfuls of water splashed onto the wall. Himself coughed, glanced at bis slip of paper, and shaped his mouth to pronounce the invocation. But here was Christina jostling her way to the front.

“A’ that’s nae guid,” she cried, “witches dinna mind yellow flame. It’s got tae be blue.

All eyes turned on Himself in the expectation that he would be pushed off his balance. But no. He beckoned to Effgenii and whispered a word or two in Russian which sent the Muscovite darting into the house. He was back in a twinkling with three wineglasses and a bottle of noisome crème de menthe. But during the twinkling Himself determined with a smile that, although he had forgotten to tell the village chemist who made up the powder to be sure to put into it the blue-burning sulphur that Ovid had prescribed, he would beat the wee witch yet. The three wineglasses were filled to the brim. He set a match to them, and after a sputter or two, gemlike blue flames licked their rims. He stooped and put one on either side of the Madonna in the niche and one at her feet. With one accord the guests again said Aah,”and for a moment seemed to check their scratching. It was now Christina’s turn to be taken aback. She stared at the calm blue flames and after a moment said, “That’s nae bad, that’s nae bad.

Then came the invocation in which Himself exhorted the wee witch to be gone and to take another road. We marveled at the number of rhyming words he had plucked from the English language and we waited anxiously for the first that must have come to his mind. He held on to it until the last line and then out it came with a plump. A boisterous clamor of assent and approbution burst from the crowd. Then came the old but still sparkling champagne and “a good time was had by all.”

As the guests scattered in the gathering dusk Himself found old Christina at his side again with an empty glass in her hand. She had shared their good time with the others and was in quite happy mood. She asked who was “the wee lady with the bairn” in the niche. His answer impressed her.

“Well, Christina, don’t you think we have settled that old witch now?”

“Weel, weel mabbe we hae,” she said, but doubts were clearly still lingering in her mind, for she suggested in a whisper that it might nevertheless be as well to put out an extra drink for the witch. Himself protested that the day of the week was Wednesday. Yesterday and tomorrow were the days the fairies got their evening saucers of milk. Witches’ turn did not come until Friday. Christina knew this as well as he, but she urged upon him so persistently the wisdom of an extra drink on an occasion such as this that he was minded to let her have her way; sadly, it is true, because he shrank from being a party to Christina’s policy of appeasement. Perceiving that he was weakening, Christina pressed her case, saying with a chuckle that everyone else had had a drink out of turn and that the milk would surely be more to the liking of the witch if it were quickened with a touch of gin. And thus Himself’s resistance was beaten down and Christina went back to her quarters with an ample portion of that clear spirit in her glass.

When the house settled down for the night, curiosity or perhaps something deeper drove Himself out into the darkness. At the back door he found a bowl of milk. It was untouched. A sip told him that, at any rate, there were traces of gin in it. He made sure that Christina’s cat was safely in its basket in the kitchen and he left her drink to the witch. Long before the house began to stir in the morning he was out at the back door again. The bowl was dry. There were of course wild cats on the hill, but they were rare. The keeper saw to that. But you never could tell.

As Himself was setting out to go back to his work Christina came to him with the suggestion that it would be a wise precaution to pursue what he had called the policy of appeasement; and after something of an argument he surrendered to her a bottle of gin to be used sparingly in the Friday night’s bowl of milk.

It was not until June of this year that he got home again. This time for good. Some weeks before he left the United States a letter came from Christina expressing pleasure at the prospect of his settling down at last on the edge of the loch and confessing that, in her lonelier moments, she had liked to sit upon the wall close to the “wee lady with the bairn" in her niche and that she had found the two of them congenial company. In a postscript, as an afterthought, she remarked that the gin was getting very low in its bottle.

As he drove up the road one Sunday evening a couple of months later, a familiar sight met his startled eyes—the sheen of tumbled whinstones gleaming freshly in the penumbra under the time trees. On Saturday, they told him, half of the new wall had gone the way of the old. But eight yards still stood fast. The Madonna was safe and snug in her niche under the big flat stone. Later Effgenii the Muscovite found him contemplating the ruins in sadness. The master dyker explained ruefully and somewhat apologetically that there had been an uncommon sluicing of rain on Saturday afternoon and that, a lew moments before the wall had gone, Christina had seen the witch nipping over it.

That was an important statement, which called for careful handling. So far the witch had remained severely invisible. It was intolerable that she now dared to reveal herself in the flesh — if indeed witches such as she had flesh. Christina tended to be silent and aloof, and it was not until some days later that Himself found her in a receptive mood and ventured to ask what the witch had looked like.

“Ach,” she said, spotting the source of his information, “that’s only Russian blether.” But he noticed that her eyes eluded his. Then she added that the gin had run out about a week before his return and she reminded him that Friday was the witches’ night and that the wall had gone on Saturday.

And that is how we stand today. Himself is wondering whether anyone can suggest a new mode of approach to the solution of the problem. In these times he inclines to think that gin is too costly.

  1. She purifies with tier thrise
    old horie headed Eason,
    With water thrise and sulphur thrise
    as she thought meet in reason.