The Warlock O' Oakwood

: Tales From Scottish Ballads

"Ae gloamin' as the sinking sun

Gaed owre the wastlin' braes,

And shed on Oakwood's haunted towers

His bright but fading rays,

Auld Michael sat his leafu' lane

Down by the streamlet's side,

Beneath a spreading hazel bush,

And watched the passing tide."

The bright rays of the setting sun were shining over the valley o

Ettrick, and lighting up the stone turrets on the old tower of Oakwood.

For many a long year the old tower had stood empty, while its owner, Sir

Michael Scott, one of the most learned men who ever lived, wandered in

distant lands, far across the sea.

He had been a mere boy when he left it, to study at Durham and Oxford:

then the love of learning had carried him first of all to Paris, where

he had been famed for his skill in mathematics; then to Italy, and

finally to Spain, where he had studied alchemy under the Moors, and had

learned from them, so 'twas said, much of the magic of the East, so that

he had power over spirits, and could command them to come and go at his

bidding, and could read the stars, and cure the sick, and do many other

wonderful things, which made all men regard him as a wizard.

And now that he had come back to his old home once more, the country

folk avoided him, and gazed with awe at the great square tower where,

they said, he spent most of his time, practising his magic art, and

holding converse with the powers of darkness.

The King, on the other hand, thought much of this most learned knight,

and would fain have seen more of him at his court in Edinburgh, but Sir

Michael loved the country best, and spent most of his time there,

writing, or reading, or making experiments.

This evening, however, he was not in his tower, but was sitting by the

side of the Ettrick, studying with deepest interest all the sights and

sounds of nature which were going on around him. For he loved nature,

this studious, quiet, middle-aged man, and the sight of the little

minnows darting about in the water, and the trouts hiding under the

stones, and the partridges coming whirring across the cornfields, gave

him as much pleasure as all the wonderful sights which he had seen in

far-off lands.

Suddenly he raised his head and listened. Far away in the distance he

seemed to hear the sound of trumpets, and the "thud," "thud" of horses'

hoofs, as if a body of men were riding quickly towards him.

"Some strangers are approaching," he said to himself, "and if I am not

mistaken they are soldiers. I will hasten home and learn their errand.

Mayhap it is a message from his Majesty the King."

He rose to his feet slowly, for his limbs were somewhat cramped with

sitting, and walked with stately dignity to the tower.

The riders had just arrived, and, as he expected, they bore a message

from the King. As he approached, a knight clad in full armour rode

forward, preceded by a man-at-arms, and, bending low over his horse's

neck, presented to him a parchment packet, sealed with the Royal Seal.

"The King of Scotland, whom God preserve, sends greetings to his loyal

cousin Sir Michael Scott," he said, "and whereas various French sailors

have committed acts of piracy on the high seas, and have attacked and

robbed divers Scottish vessels, he lays on him his Royal commands that

he will betake himself to France with all speed, and deliver this packet

into the hands of the French King. And, further, that he will demand

that an answer to the writing contained therein be given him at once,

and that he hasten back with all dispatch, and draw not rein, nor tarry,

till he deliver the answer to the King in Edinburgh."

Sir Michael took the packet from the messenger's hand and bowed gravely.

He was accustomed to receive such orders, and everyone wondered at the

marvellously quick way in which he obeyed them.

"Carry my humblest greetings to his Majesty," he answered, "and assure

him that I will lose no time, but will at once set about making my

preparations. By dawn of day I will be gone, mounted on the swiftest

steed that ever the eye of mortal man gazed upon."

"Is it swifter than the horse which his Majesty keeps for his own use at

Dunfermline?" asked the soldier curiously. "For if it is, it must indeed

be a noble animal, and 'twould fetch a good price among the barons of

the court. Ever since his Majesty has turned his mind so much to horses,

his courtiers have vied with each other to see which of them could

become the possessor of the swiftest animal."

"My horse is not for sale," said Sir Michael shortly, "not though men

offered me his weight in gold."

The young officer bowed again. There was something in Sir Michael's tone

which forbade him asking to see the horse, much as he should have liked

to do so; so, giving a signal to his men, he turned his horse's head in

the direction of Edinburgh, and rode off, leaving Sir Michael standing

on the doorstep gazing after them, a strange smile on his face.

"A good price," he repeated; "by my troth, 'twould need to be a very

good price which would buy my good Diabolus from me. But I must go and

summon him."

Muttering strangely to himself, he turned and entered the tower.

He went up the narrow, winding, stone stairs until he reached a little

iron-studded door. This door was locked, but he opened it with a key

which hung from his girdle, and, entering the low-roofed attic-room to

which it led, he locked it again carefully behind him. The attic was at

the top of the tower, and through the narrow windows which pierced three

of its walls, a glorious view was to be had over the surrounding


But Sir Michael had not come up there to admire the view; he had other

work to do--work which seemed to need mysterious preparations.

First of all, he proceeded to dress himself in a curiously shaped black

cloak, and a hunting cap made of hair, which he took down from a nail in

the wall. The cloak was very long, and completely enveloped his figure,

and, when he had pulled the hairy cap well down over his eyes, no one

would have taken him, I warrant, for the quiet, middle-aged, master of


When he was dressed he took down a leaden platter from a shelf by the

door, and, opening a cupboard, he took out a little glass bottle full of

a clear amber-coloured liquid, which glowed like melted fire. Setting

down the platter on a little round table in the middle of the room, he

dropped one or two drops of this liquid on it, and in an instant they

broke into tongues of flame which curled up high above his head.

It was a strange and weird fire, enough to frighten any man, but the

still, dark-robed figure standing beside it never moved, not even when a

number of tiny little imps appeared, clad in scarlet, and green, and

blue, and purple, and danced round and round it on the table, tossing

their tiny arms, and twisting their queer little faces, as if they had

gone mad.

He waited patiently until the little creatures had finished their dance

and disappeared, then he seized the platter, and, going to one of the

narrow windows, he flung it open, and, pushing the platter through it,

he threw it, with its burning load, far out into the gathering twilight.

He watched the fire as it fell, in glowing fragments, among the oak

trees which surrounded the tower, then he opened a small, black,

leathern-bound book, which lay chained to a monk's desk which stood in a

corner. Opening it he read a few words in an unknown tongue, then he

turned to the window again and waved a little silver wand over his head

three times.

"Come, Diabolus. Come, Diabolus," he muttered, and then he knelt on the

floor and waited eagerly, his eyes fixed on the Western horizon.

The sun had sunk, but the sky was clear, and one or two stars had

appeared, and were shining out peacefully, like little candles set in a

golden haze.

Presently, however, big black clouds began to appear, and pile up, one

against another, till the little stars were blotted out, and the whole

sky became as black as night.

In a little time the dull muttering of thunder could be heard far away

over the woods. It came nearer and nearer--crash upon crash, and roar

upon roar--while the lightning flashed, and a perfect tempest of wind

arose and lashed the branches of the tall trees into fury. Truly it was

an awful storm.

The wizard felt the solid masonry of the tower rock beneath him, but he

was as calm as if only a little gust of wind had been passing on a

summer's day.

Still he knelt on, peering eagerly into the darkness. At last his eyes

grew bright and keen, for he saw a shadowy form come floating through

the air, driven by the wind. He knew now that his charm had worked, and

that this was his familiar spirit--the spirit over whom he had most

control--who had come in the form of a great black horse, with flaming

eyes, and flowing mane, to carry him over the sea to France.

With one bound he flew through the window, and alighted on its back.

"Now woe betide thee, Diabolus," he said, "if thou fliest not swiftly.

For I must be in Paris by daylight to-morrow."

The huge black horse shook its mane, and snorted fiercely, as if it

understood, and without more ado it flew on its way, its uncanny

black-cloaked rider seated on its back.

As soon as they had disappeared, the storm died away, and the moon rose,

and the little stars shone out over Oakwood Tower as clearly and quietly

as if there had never been a cloud in the sky. Meanwhile Sir Michael

Scott and his huge black charger were flying over hills, and valleys,

and rivers, in the darkness. They even flew over the sea itself, and

never halted until the day broke, and there, far below, lay the city of

Paris, dimly seen in the gray morning light.

In the King's Palace the lackeys were hardly awake. They gazed at one

another in astonishment when the heavy iron knocker on the great gate

fell with a knock that echoed through the courtyard.

"Who dares to knock so loudly at this early hour?" asked the fat old

porter in great indignation. "Whoever it be, I trow he may e'en wait

outside till I have broken my fast."

But before he had done speaking the knocker fell once more, and there

was something so commanding in the sound that the little man hurried

off, grumbling to himself, to get the key.

"Beshrew me if it doth not sound like a messenger from some great king,"

said a man-at-arms who was standing by, and the porter's heart misgave

him at the thought that perhaps by his tardiness he had got himself into


But when he opened the great door, instead of the company of armed men

whom he dreaded to see, there was only a solitary rider, muffled in a

great black cloak, and wearing a hairy cap drawn down over his face,

seated on an enormous black horse. The stranger's dress was so

outlandish, and his horse so big, that the porter crossed himself.

"Surely 'tis the Evil One himself," he muttered; and when the lackeys

heard his words, they crowded round the doorway. They, too, were puzzled

at Sir Michael's appearance, and began to laugh and jeer at him.

"He is like a hooded crow," cried one.

"Nay, 'tis an old wife in her husband's clothes," shouted another.

"Surely the cloak belonged to Noah," cried a third.

But they started back in dismay when the muffled figure pushed up his

cap, and demanded an audience of the King.

"I come from the King of Scotland," he said haughtily, "and his business

brooks no delay."

A shout of laughter greeted his demand.

"Thou a messenger from the King of Scotland!" they cried. "A likely

story, forsooth! The King of Scotland sends not beggars, in old rusty

suits, as his ambassadors. No, no, my good fellow, thou askest us to

believe too much. Whatever thou art, thou art not a king's messenger."

"What!" cried Sir Michael. "Ye refuse to do my bidding! and all because

I am not decked out in crimson and gold, and ridest alone without a

retinue. Well, ye shall see that it is not always wise to judge of a man

by his outward appearance. Make way there." And without wasting any more

words, he leaped from his horse, and, throwing its bridle over a pillar,

he strode right through the middle of them, and made his way to the

King's private apartment, without even waiting to be announced.

Now the King of France was accustomed to be treated with great ceremony,

and when this dark-robed man strode into his bed-chamber, and held out

the parchment packet to him, demanding an instant answer, he was very

indignant, and refused to open it.

"Thou sayest that thou comest from the King of Scots," he said. "Well, I

believe thee not. If thou wert Sir Michael Scott, as thou sayest thou

art, thou wouldst have come with an armed escort, as befitted thy rank

and station. Therefore begone, Sirrah, and count thyself happy that I

have not had thee thrown into one of the palace dungeons, as a

punishment for thy insolence."

"By my troth," cried Sir Michael angrily, "if this is the way thou

wouldst answer my master's demands, I trow I can soon bring thee to a

better frame of mind."

Without waiting for an answer, he flung down the parchment packet on the

floor, and strode out of the room in the same way that he had entered,

leaving the angry King gazing after him in astonishment.

"The fellow is mad," he cried to the nobles who stood round. "See to it

that he is shut up until he comes to his senses."

But Sir Michael had already reached the courtyard, and passed through

the great door to where his horse was waiting outside. He lowered his

voice and spoke gently to the mighty beast.

"Stamp, my steed, and show the varlets that we are better than we seem

to be," he said. And at his bidding the gigantic creature lifted one of

its forefeet, and brought it down with all its might on the pavement.

In an instant it was as though an earthquake were passing over the city.

The great towers of the Palace which frowned overhead rocked and swayed,

and all the bells on a hundred church steeples chimed and jangled, until

the air was thick with the sound of them.

The King and his courtiers were very much alarmed at these strange

events, but they did not like to own that it was the mysterious stranger

who was the cause of them. All the same, the King called a hurried

council, and when the nobles were assembled, and seated in their places

in the great hall, he opened the parchment packet, and took out the

papers which it contained. When he had read them his face flushed with

anger. The King of Scotland's demands were very urgent, and moreover

they were stated in no uncertain language, and as he considered that he

was a much more powerful monarch than King Alexander, he did not like to

be dictated to.

"Ah," he said, "so my Lord of Scotland lays down his own terms with a

high hand. Methinks he must learn that this is not the way to obtain

favours from France."

"Ay, so in good sooth he must learn," repeated the nobles in one breath.

"And in order that the lesson be made plain, we advise that his

messenger be cast into prison, and that no notice be taken of his


"Your advice pleases me well," said the King. "Command that the officers

seize the fellow at once. Certs, he may think himself lucky that We

permit his head to remain on his shoulders."

The command was given, but Sir Michael had been growing more and more

impatient that no more notice seemed to be taken of his errand, and when

the officers of the guard appeared, and, instead of handing him the

French King's answer, as he had expected, laid their hands on him to

drag him off to prison, his anger knew no bounds.

"What," he cried, "doth the King still refuse to listen? By my troth, he

shall rue the delay," and once more he whispered in the black horse's

ear, and once more the mighty creature lifted its great forefoot and

brought it down with a crash on the pavement.

The effect was even more terrible than it had been before.

In an instant great thunder clouds rolled up from the horizon, and a

fearful storm broke over the city. The thunder rolled and the lightning

flashed, and strange and weird figures were seen floating in the air.

The great bells which hung in the steeple of the great Cathedral of

Notre Dame gave one awful crash, and then burst in two, while the towers

and pinnacles of the splendid church came tumbling down in the darkness.

The very foundations of the Palace were shaken, and rocked to and fro,

till everyone within it was thrown to the ground. The King himself was

hurled from his throne of state, and was so badly hurt that he cried

aloud with pain and fear.

As for the courtiers, they lay about the floor in all directions,

paralysed with terror, crossing themselves, and calling on the Saints to

help them. They were so terrified that not one of them thought of going

to their Royal Master's aid.

The King was the first to recover himself. "Alack! alack!" he groaned,

rising to his feet. "Woe betide the day that brought this fellow to our

land! Warlock or wizard, I know not which, but one of them he must be,

for no mere mortal man could have had the power to work this harm to our


While he was speaking a loud trampling of feet was heard outside the

great hall, and all the lackeys came tumbling in, pell-mell, without

waiting to do their reverence, just as if the King had been any common


"O Sire," they cried, "grant the fellow anything and everything he asks,

and let him be gone. He threatens that he will cause this awful beast to

stamp yet once again, and, if he does, the whole land of France will be

ruined. If your Majesty but knew what harm hath been wrought in the city


"Yes, let him begone," wailed the courtiers, slowly beginning to pick

themselves up from the floor, and feeling their bones to see if any of

them were broken.

And, indeed, the King was nothing loth to grant their request, for he

felt that if the mysterious stranger were allowed to stand at the door

much longer his whole kingdom would be tumbling to pieces about his

ears. Better far that the King of Scotland should be satisfied, even

although it was sorely against his inclinations.

With trembling fingers he picked up the papers and once more read them.

Then he wrote an answer promising to fulfil all the Scotch King's

demands and he sealed up the packet, and flung it to the nearest lackey.

"Give it to him and bid him begone," he cried, and a sigh of relief went

round the hall, as a minute later the man returned with the tidings that

the great black horse and its outlandish rider had vanished.

"Heaven grant that when next my Cousin of Scotland sends an ambassador,

he choose another man," said the King, and there was not a soul in all

the palace who did not breathe a fervent "Amen."

Meanwhile, Sir Michael and his wonderful steed were speeding along on

their homeward way. They had crossed the north of France, and were

flying over the Straits of Dover, when the creature began to think that

it might work a little mischief on its own account.

It had taken a sudden fancy to remain in France for a while, and it

thought how nice it would be if it could pitch its master, whom it

rather feared than loved, over its head into the water, and so be rid of

him for ever.

It knew that as long as it was under his spell, it had to do his

bidding, but it knew also that there were certain words which could

break the spell even of a wizard, and it began to wonder if it would be

possible to make Sir Michael pronounce one of these.

"Master," it said at last slyly, for when it wanted it had the power of

speech, "I know little about Scottish ways, but I have oft-times been

told that the old wives and children there mutter some words to

themselves ere they go to bed. 'Tis some spell, I warrant, and I would

fain know it. Canst tell me the words?"

Now the wily animal knew perfectly well what words the children of

Scotland were taught to repeat as they knelt at night at their mother's

knee, but it hoped that its master would answer without thinking.

But Sir Michael had not studied magic for long years for nothing, and he

knew that if he answered that the women and children in Scotland bowed

their knees and said their Pater Noster ere they went to bed, the holy

words would break the spell, and he would be at the mercy of the fiend,

who, when he needed him, was obliged to take the form of a horse, or

serve him in any other way which he required.

So he shook the creature's bridle and answered sharply, "What is that to

thee, Diabolus? Attend to the business thou hast in hand, and vex not

thy soul with silly questions. If thou truly desirest to know what the

bairns are taught to say at bed-time, then I would advise thee, when

thou art in Scotland, and hast time to spare from thy wicked devices, to

go and stand by a cottage window, and learn for thyself. Mayhap the

knowledge will do thee good. In the meantime think no more of the

matter, unless thou wouldst feel the weight of my wand on thy flanks."

Now, if there was one thing which the great horse feared, it was the

wizard's magic wand, so he put his mind to his work, and flew with all

the swiftness he possessed northwards over England, and across the

Cheviots, until at last they came in sight of Edinburgh, and the Royal

Palace of Holyrood.

Here Sir Michael slid from his back, and dismissed him with a little

wave of his wand. "Avaunt, Diabolus," he said, and at the words the

magic horse vanished into thin air, and, strange to say, the black cloak

and hairy cap which the wizard had worn on the journey seemed to fall

from him and vanish also, and he was left standing, a middle-aged,

dignified gentleman, clad in a suit of sober brown.

He hurried down to the Palace, and sought an instant audience of the

King. The lackeys bowed low, and the doors flew open before him, as he

was led into his Majesty's presence, for at the Court of Holyrood Sir

Michael Scott was a very great person indeed.

But for once a frown gathered on King Alexander's face when he saw him.

Kings expect to be obeyed, and he was not prepared to see the man appear

whom he had ordered off to France with all speed the day before.

"What ho! Sir Michael," he said coldly. "Is this the way that thou

carriest out our royal orders. In good sooth I wish I had chosen a more

zealous messenger."

Sir Michael smiled gravely. "Wilt please my Sovereign Lord to receive

this packet from the hand of the King of France?" he said with a stately

bow. "Methinks that he will find that in it all his demands are granted,

and that I have obeyed his behests to the best of my power."

The King was utterly taken aback. He wondered if Sir Michael were

playing some trick on him, for it was absolutely impossible that he

could have gone and come from France in twenty-four hours.

When he opened the packet, however, he saw that it was no trick. In

utter amazement he called for his courtiers, and they crowded round him

to examine the papers. They were all in order, and all the requests had

been granted without more ado. Reparation was to be made for the damage

that had been done to the Scottish ships, and in future all acts of

piracy would be severely punished. It was evident that the papers had

been taken to Paris, for there was the French King's own seal, and there

was his name signed in his own handwriting, though how they had been

carried thither so quickly, nobody ventured to say.

"'Tis safer not to ask, your Majesty," whispered one old knight, making

the sign of the Cross as he spoke, "for there are strange tales afloat,

which say that the Lord of Oakwood keeps a familiar spirit in that

ancient tower of his, who is ready to do his bidding at all times; and,

by my soul, this goes far to prove it."

The King looked round uneasily, in case Sir Michael had heard this last

sentence. He felt that if this were true, and he were a wizard, as men

hinted, it was best not to incur his displeasure; but he need not have

been afraid. The Lord of Oakwood loved not courts, and now that he had

done his errand, and the papers were safe in the King's hand, he had

taken advantage of the astonishment of the courtiers to slip unobserved

through the crowd, and, having borrowed a horse from the royal stables,

he was now riding leisurely out of the city, on his way home to his old

tower on the banks of the Ettrick.