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At the Article of Death

A NOISELESS evening fell chill and dank on the moorlands. The
Dreichil was mist to the very rim of its precipitous face,
and the long, dun sides of the Little Muneraw faded into grey
vapour. Underfoot were plashy moss and dripping heather, and
all the air was choked with autumnal heaviness. The herd of the
Lanely Bield stumbled wearily homeward in this, the late after-
noon, with the roof-tree of his cottage to guide him over the

For weeks, months, he had been ill, righting the battle of a
lonely sickness. Two years ago his wife had died, and as there
had been no child, he was left to fend for himself. He had no
need for any woman, he declared, for his wants were few and his
means of the scantiest, so he had cooked his own meals and done
his own household work since the day he had stood by the grave
in the Gladsmuir kirkyard. And for a little he did well ; and
then, inch by inch, trouble crept upon him. He would come
home late in the winter nights, soaked to the skin, and sit in the
peat-reek till his clothes dried on his body. The countless little
ways in which a woman’s hand makes a place healthy and habitable
were unknown to him, and soon he began to pay the price of his
folly. For he was not a strong man, though a careless onlooker


                        274 At the Article of Death

might have guessed the opposite from his mighty frame. His
folk had all been short-lived, and already his was the age of his
father at his death. Such a fact might have warned him to
circumspection; but he took little heed till that night in the
March before, when, coming up the Little Muneraw and breathing
hard, a chill wind on the summit cut him to the bone. He rose
the next morn, shaking like a leaf, and then for weeks he lay ill
in bed, while a younger shepherd from the next sheep-farm did
his work on the hill. In the early summer he rose a broken man,
without strength or nerve, and always oppressed with an ominous
sinking in the chest ; but he toiled through his duties, and told no
man his sorrow. The summer was parchingly hot, and the hill-
sides grew brown and dry as ashes. Often as he laboured up the
interminable ridges, he found himself sickening at heart with a
poignant regret. These were the places where once he had strode
so freely with the crisp air cool on his forehead. Now he had
no eye for the pastoral loveliness, no ear for the witch-song of
the desert. When he reached a summit, it was only to fall
panting, and when he came home at nightfall he sank wearily on
a seat.

And so through the lingering summer the year waned to an
autumn of storm. Now his malady seemed nearing its end. He
had seen no man’s face for a week, for long miles of moor severed
him from a homestead. He could scarce struggle from his bed by
mid-day, and his daily round of the hill was gone through with
tottering feet. The time would soon come for drawing the ewes
and driving them to the Gladsmuir market. If he could but hold
on till the word came, he might yet have speech of a fellow man,
and bequeath his duties to another. But if he died first, the
charge would wander uncared for, while he himself would lie in
that lonely cot till such time as the lowland farmer sent the


                        By John Buchan 275

messenger. With anxious care he tended his flickering spark of
life—he had long ceased to hope—and with something like heroism,
looked blankly towards his end.

But on this afternoon all things had changed. At the edge of
the water-meadow he had found blood dripping from his lips, and
half-swooned under an agonising pain at his heart. With burning
eyes he turned his face to home, and fought his way inch by inch
through the desert. He counted the steps crazily, and with pitiful
sobs looked upon mist and moorland. A faint bleat of a sheep
came to his ear ; he heard it clearly, and the hearing wrung his
soul. Not for him any more the hills of sheep and a shepherd’s
free and wholesome life. He was creeping, stricken, to his home-
stead to die, like a wounded fox crawling to its earth. And the
loneliness of it all, the pity, choked him more than the fell grip of
his sickness.

Inside the house a great banked fire of peats was smouldering.
Unwashed dishes stood on the table, and the bed in the corner
was unmade, for such things were of little moment in the extremity
of his days. As he dragged his leaden foot over the threshold, the
autumn dusk thickened through the white fog, and shadows
awaited him, lurking in every corner. He dropped carelessly on
the bed s edge, and lay back in deadly weakness. No sound broke
the stillness, for the clock had long ago stopped for lack of winding.
Only the shaggy collie which had lain down by the fire looked to
the bed and whined mournfully.

In a little he raised his eyes and saw that the place was filled
with darkness, save where the red eye of the fire glowed hot and
silent. His strength was too far gone to light the lamp, but he
could make a crackling fire. Some power other than himself
made him heap bog-sticks on the peat and poke it feebly, for he
shuddered at the ominous long shades which peopled floor and

The Yellow Book—Vol. XII. R


                        276 At the Article of Death

ceiling. If he had but a leaping blaze he might yet die in a less
gross mockery of comfort.

Long he lay in the firelight, sunk in the lethargy of illimitable
feebleness. Then the strong spirit of the man began to flicker
within him and rise to sight ere it sank in death. He had always
been a godly liver, one who had no youth of folly to look back
upon, but a well-spent life of toil lit by the lamp of a half-under-
stood devotion. He it was who at his wife’s death-bed had ad-
ministered words of comfort and hope ; and he had passed all his
days with the thought of his own end fixed like a bull’s-eye in the
target of his meditations. In his lonely hill-watches, in the
weary lambing days, and on droving journeys to far-away towns,
he had whiled the hours with self-communing, and self-examina-
tion, by the help of a rigid Word. Nay, there had been far more
than the mere punctilios of obedience to the letter ; there had
been the living fire of love, the heroical attitude of self-denial, to
be the halo of his solitary life. And now God had sent him the
last fiery trial, and he was left alone to put off the garments of

He dragged himself to a cupboard where all the appurtenances
of the religious life lay to his hand. There were Spurgeon’s
sermons in torn covers, and a dozen musty Christian Treasuries.
Some antiquated theology which he had got from his father, lay
lowest, and on the top was the gaudy Bible, which he had once
received from a grateful Sabbath class while he yet sojourned in
the lowlands. It was lined and re-lined, and there he had often
found consolation. Now in the last faltering of mind he had
braced himself to the thought that he must die as became his
possession, with the Word of God in his hand, and his thoughts
fixed on that better country, which is heavenly.

The thin leaves mocked his hands, and he could not turn to


                        By John Buchan 277

any well-remembered text. In vain he struggled to reach the
gospels ; the obstinate leaves blew ever back to a dismal psalm or
a prophet’s lamentation. A word caught his eye and he read
vaguely : “The shepherds slumber, O King, . . . the people is
scattered upon the mountains . . . and no man gathereth them
. . . there is no healing of the hurt, for the wound is grievous.”
Something in the poignant sorrow of the phrase caught his atten
tion for one second, and then he was back in a fantasy of pain and
impotence. He could not fix his mind, and even as he strove he
remembered the warning he had so often given to others against
death-bed repentance. Then, he had often said, a man has no
time to make his peace with his Maker, when he is wrestling with
death. Now the adage came back to him ; and gleams of com-
fort shot for one moment through his soul. He at any rate had
long since chosen for God, and the good Lord would see and pity
His servant’s weakness.

A sheep bleated near the window, and then another. The
flocks were huddling down, and wind and wet must be coming.
Then a long dreary wind sighed round the dwelling, and at the
same moment a bright tongue of flame shot up from the fire, and a
queer crooked shadow flickered over the ceiling. The sight caught
his eyes, and he shuddered in nameless terror. He had never been
a coward, but like all religious folk he had imagination and emo-
tion. Now his fancy was perturbed, and he shrank from these
uncanny shapes. In the failure of all else he had fallen to the
repetition of bare phrases, telling of the fragrance and glory of the
city of God. “River of the water of Life,” he said to himself,
. . . “the glory and honour of the nations . . . and the street of
the city was pure gold . . . and the saved shall walk in the light
of it … and God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes.”

Again a sound without, the cry of sheep and the sough of a lone


                        278 At the Article of Death

wind. He was sinking fast, but the noise gave him a spasm
of strength. The dog rose and sniffed uneasily at the door, a
trickle of rain dripped from the roofing, and all the while the
silent heart of the fire glowed and hissed at his side. It seemed
an uncanny thing that now in the moment of his anguish the
sheep should bleat as they had done in the old strong days of

Again the sound, and again the morris-dance of shadows among
the rafters. The thing was too much for his failing mind. Some
words of hope—”streams in the desert, and”—died on his lips,
and he crawled from the bed to a cupboard. He had not tasted
strong drink for a score of years, for to the true saint in the up-
lands abstinence is a primary virtue ; but he kept brandy in the
house for illness or wintry weather. Now it would give him
strength, and it was no sin to cherish the spark of life.

He found the spirits and gulped down a mouthful—one, two,
till the little flask was drained, and the raw fluid spilled over
beard and coat. In his days of health it would have made him
drunk, but now all the fibres of his being were relaxed, and it
merely strung him to a fantasmal vigour, but more, it maddened
his brain, already tottering under the assaults of death. Before,
he had thought feebly and greyly ; now his mind surged in an

The pain that lay heavy on his chest, that clutched his throat,
that tugged at his heart, was as fierce as ever, but for one short
second the utter weariness of spirit was gone. The old fair words
of Scripture came back to him, and he murmured promises and
hopes till his strength failed him for all but thought, and with
closed eyes he fell back to dream.

But only for one moment ; the next he was staring blankly in
a mysterious terror. Again the voices of the wind, again the


                        By John Buchan 279

shapes on floor and wall and the relentless eye of the fire. He was
too helpless to move and too crazy to pray ; he could only lie and
stare, numb with expectancy. The liquor seemed to have driven
all memory from him, and left him with a child’s heritage of
dreams and stories.

Crazily he pattered to himself a child’s charm against evil fairies,
which the little folk of the moors still speak at their play.

Wearie, Ovie, gang awa’,
Dinna show your face at a’,
Ower the muir and down the burn,
Wearie, Ovie, ne’er return.

The black crook of the chimney was the object of his spells, for
the kindly ingle was no less than a malignant twisted devil, with
an awful red eye glowering through smoke.

His breath was winnowing through his worn chest like an
autumn blast in bare rafters. The horror of the black night
without, all filled with the wail of sheep, and the deeper fear of
the red light within, stirred his brain, not with the far-reaching
fanciful terror of men, but with the crude homely fright of a little
child. He would have sought, had his strength suffered him, to
cower one moment in the light as a refuge from the other, and
the next to hide in the darkest corner to shun the maddening glow.
And with it all he was acutely conscious of the last pangs of
mortality. He felt the grating of cheek-bones on skin, and the
sighing, which did duty for breath, rocked him with agony.

Then a great shadow rose out of the gloom and stood shaggy in
the firelight. The man’s mind was tottering, and once more he
was back at his Scripture memories and vague repetitions. Afore-
time his fancy had toyed with green fields, now it held to the
darker places. “It was the day when Evil Merodach was king in


                        280 At the Article of Death

Babylon,” came the quaint recollection, and some lingering ray of
thought made him link the odd name with the amorphous presence
before him. The thing moved and came nearer, touched him, and
brooded by his side. He made to shriek, but no sound came, only
a dry rasp in the throat and a convulsive twitch of the limbs.

For a second he lay in the agony of a terror worse than the
extremes of death. It was only his dog, returned from his watch
by the door, and seeking his master. He, poor beast, knew of some
sorrow vaguely and afar, and nuzzled into his side with dumb

Then from the chaos of faculties a shred of will survived. For
an instant his brain cleared, for to most there comes a lull at the
very article of death. He saw the bare moorland room, he felt
the dissolution of his members, the palpable ebb of life. His reli-
gion had been swept from him like a rotten garment. His mind
was vacant of memories, for all were driven forth by purging
terror. Only some relic of manliness, the heritage of cleanly and
honest days, was with him to the uttermost. With blank
thoughts, without hope or vision, with nought save an aimless
resolution and a causeless bravery, he passed into the short anguish
which is death.

MLA citation:

Buchan, John. “At the Article of Death.” The Yellow Book, vol. 12, January 1897, pp. 273-280. Yellow Book Digital Edition, edited by Dennis Denisoff and Lorraine Janzen Kooistra, 2010-2014. Yellow Nineties 2.0, Ryerson University Centre for Digital Humanities, 2020.