A Killing in Van Dieman’s Land
The first of four extracts from Douglas Watt’s latest historical crime novel, A Killing in Van Dieman’s Land, featuring investigative advocate John MacKenzie and side-kick Davie Scougall, set in late 17th century Edinburgh.
Prologue: Scotland, 1690Corruption first stirred in my soul long ago and has grown like a tumour within me ever since. One moment I am happy in the worship of the Lord, the next fallen into deepest despair. I become a creature tossed and turned by every wind of temptation, blown here and there like a boat upon the ocean of the world.When I blow out my candle in my chamber at night, I tremble in the darkness, my mind filling with dreadful visions which will not leave me all night long. I get no rest during the hours of blackness. I am beholden to my thoughts and ruled by them.During the night, all my sins are presented to me. I know them like the lines on my hands. My sins are these: my want of the love of Christ, my pride, both natural and spiritual, my hypocrisy and my backsliding. In the wake of these lesser transgressions comes much worse – the perverse notion of disbelief infects my thoughts. God help me through this vale of tears!When I am afflicted by sin, whether in my chamber at night, or on the causeway during the day, or even in the house, I hear words spoken inside my head. They are so clear I know not if they are from my own being or from some other creature biding within me. Such loathsome words that I dare not commit them to paper. I believe there is no other creature in the whole world so bound to sinning than me. There is no temptation out of Hell that I am not bewitched by. When Satan sees all his temptations are yielded to, he presents the final sin to me. It is the worst sin of all. It is the mother of all sins. It is the sin of atheism.As my corruption grows day after day, night after night, I am tempted more and more to call out aloud and blaspheme to the wide world, proclaiming my sinning nature to all, even during the hour of holy prayer, or in the Kirk as the minister preaches, or even at the table during Holy Communion.
I have an aching desire to shout out such things as: The words written in the Bible are fancy. They are not the words of God, but the contrivance of men. The ministers are not servants of God but seducers of the people. At such times, I fear I am not known by Him. I am cast out of His house.
You are nothing, I say to myself. You come from nothing. You pass to nothing. You deserve nothing. How can you be promised everlasting life when you are a vile sinning creature who doubts the existence of God? I cannot be rid of such thoughts. The temptation to think them is always with me, especially at night when it rises to fever pitch. But more and more, such thoughts spring up, unbidden, during the day.
I desire more and more to proclaim my life is a sham, holy form without, while at my core, I am festered by sin. I know who is responsible for my torture. I know who speaks within my head. I see him in my mind’s eye. Sometimes he is just a presence, a sense of foreboding. Other times, he is a corporeal creature who watches me in the fields beyond the city walls or in the woods.
Satan walks among us, the minister tells us. We must be on our guard for him. Satan throws stones of sin at us. Some are pebbles which I swat away like flies, others are rocks which pierce my skin and send me reeling.As I grow in my sinning, there comes into my mind one sin more agreeable to my nature than all the rest. It squeezes the others out of my thoughts, like the cuckoo displaces its rivals from the nest. It is like a beautiful jewel absorbing the eye and which the heart desires. I keep it in my heart hidden from all. It returns each night. I fight it with all my strength but cannot be rid of it. It enflames my mind with visions so depraved that, when I recall them in the light of day, I shudder to the pith of my bones.When sin has me in its grasp, tight as a vice, I grow weary of everything and fall into lassitude. I feel a deadness of spirit. I am overcome with a desire to sleep, even during secret prayer, when I am usually full of vigour and joyous in the Lord. I am like a stone at the bottom of the ocean, crushed by the vast weight of water above. I am nothing but a hypocrite. I am the vilest creature ever born in the world.God has surely cast me from his holy vessel and abandoned me to drown in an ocean of sin. Then, the temptation to misbelieve sweeps through me. It is irresistibe. There is nothing, there is no God, I say to myself again and again. There is no Saviour. There is no Christ. There is no Redemption. I forget the mighty works of the Lord. The wise words of the ministers are sand in the wind. I see only the corruptions in my nature which render me vile.
I dare not look at my face in the glass lest I see the Devil’s mark on my countenance. I repeat the words again and again, countless times in the chamber of my mind. There is no Christ. There is no Redemption. There is no God.
Tomorrow: A murder and a meeting with the Lord Advocate