I am loath to travel the high road that passes Carterhaugh. They say its ruined battlements are the abode of demons and what else besides. But I am a Minister of the Lord, called to deliver His Gospel to this barb’rous Borderland betwixt Tweed Mouth and Sark. Such fancies are but Papist superstition and I press on past those forbidding walls.
I was called on such an evening to visit Erskine Bell, a landowner widowed this year past, and dwelling under the cold shadow of the Cheviot.
“Godamercy, man, what ails ye?” quoth I, for I marvelled to see him sadly altered since last Lammas-tide. His sunken cheeks were those of a gibbet-crow three days a-hanging.
“She calls to me,” he replied.
“She. Her. Janet Fraser, that was.”
At this I fell silent, for Janet Fraser died a year past, at Martinmas. I buried her myself.
“Janet Fraser that was,” I ventured, “a maid to your late lady wife.” And a pretty creature, I recalled, with a long stride and a wilful eye, given to laughing on the Sabbath.
Bell let out a moan and buried his face. “Such a maid as Hagar was to Sara, for we lusted upon one another, sir, aye, and coupled.”
“You knew her, sir?”
“As Adam knew Eve.”
“While your wife was with child?”
He beat his chest, saying: “God cursed my sin, taking my wife and unborn child, so I threw that lewd minx out. But she laughed, saying ‘There’s a promise in your lust, Erskine Bell, and when I call you shall come to me.’”
“And now,” I added, trembling greatly, “she calls?”
“She does, and I go to her at Carterhaugh.”
I called on Bell to bend himself in prayer, but he would ha’ none of it. I advised resolve, but he said that, ‘gainst Janet Fraser’s call, he was a man of flesh. I promised to return.
Return I did, but only to bury Erskine Bell. It was Whitsun before I found myself again walking beneath the dark Cheviot. A shepherd boy sat weeping at the roadside.
“Oh sir,” the urchin bawled, “I’ve seen Widower Bell and a woman, yonder by Carterhaugh, and I dare not pass them.”
I told the lad to reject Popery and read his Gospels, that the dead were at peace.
But I traveled on by a different road, avoiding the old stones of Carterhaugh.
The reading features the wonderful sonorous tones of Richard Crichton.
The bare plot is inspired by Edith Wharton’s fantastic Bewitched (1925), which is set in a Puritan colony in New England but transfers to the 17th century Presbyterian Borders easily. The relationship between Bell and Janet is straight out of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible (1953), echoing John Proctor and Abigail Williams. The ending is lifted from Wuthering Heights (1847), where the child reports the ghosts of “Heathcliff and a lady”.
Carterhaugh is a real place and the setting for the Borders ballad Tam Lin, in which a girl named Janet is seduced by an otherworldly knight. Here, Janet is the supernatural seducer.
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