Beck Center English Dept. University Libraries Emory University
Emory Women Writers Resource Project Collections:
Women's Genre Fiction Project

The Witch, an electronic edition

by Mary Johnston [Johnston, Mary, 1870-1936]

date: 1914
source publisher: Houghton, Mifflin and Company
collection: Genre Fiction

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HE went that morning to visit the alderman, inopportune as he knew the visit would be esteemed. But many things were inopportune—hunger, for instance. The alderman found the visit offensively, unpatriotically inopportune. "What! The King's Majesty's ascension day—!" But one thing saved Aderhold, and that was the presence in the alderman's parlour of some seven or eight cronies, men and women. It would not do—it would not do for the alderman to seem haggling and unwilling. Aderhold quitted the house the richer by twelve shillings.

The narrow streets were crowded; everybody was out, excited and important as though he or she had died or been crowned. The physician strolled with the others. The morning was fine, he felt wealthy and happy. The sunshine that stroked the projecting, timbered fronts of houses was the sunshine of home, the soft and moist light of England. He loved England. He wandered for an hour or two here and there in the London of less than two hundred thousand souls. He went down to the riverside, and sat upon a stone step, and gazed into the purple, brooding distance. . . . At last he turned back, and | | 25 after a time found himself in the street of his lodging, and before the house.

It was a narrow, poor, and gloomy place, owned by people whom he guessed to have fallen on evil days. The plainly dressed elderly woman from whom he had hired his room had told him, indeed, as much. "Aye?" said Aderhold. "Then, mother, I 'll feel the more at home." He had lodged here now ten days and he had seen only the elderly woman and her son, a boy far gone in consumption who coughed and coughed. The woman was a silent, rigid person, withered but erect, wearing a cap and over her gown of dark stuff a coarse white kerchief and apron. This morning, when she brought him his half loaf and tankard of ale, he had spoken with casualness of the Cap and Bells. She looked at him strangely. "The Cap and Bells! . . . Doubtless you heard good talk there. "Then had come the crying about the Queen's death. When he turned from the window the woman was gone.

Now he entered the house. As he laid his hand upon the stair-rail the woman stood framed in a doorway. "Tarry a little," she said. "I wish to tell you that this house will lodge you no longer."

Aderhold stood still, then turned. "And why, good mother? I like my room and the house. I have striven to be in no way troublesome." He put his hand in his purse and drew it forth with the alderman's shillings upon the palm. "You see I have money. You'll not lose by me."

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A voice came from the room behind the woman. "Let him enter, mother. We would see this fellow who will make no trouble for us."

Aderhold noted a pale triumph in the woman's strong, lined face and in her tense, updrawn figure. "Aye, it happened to give thanks for!" she told him. "Two things happened this morning. A King came to the throne who, for all his mother's scarlet and raging sins, has himself been bred by godly men to godly ways! And my two sons came home from overseas!''

She turned and passed through the doorway into the room from which she had come. Aderhold, after a moment of hesitation, followed. It was a large, dark place, very cold and bare. Here, too, was a table, drawn toward the middle of the room, with a cloth upon it and bread and a piece of meat. Beside it, chair and stool pushed back, stood two men—the returned sons Aderhold was at once aware. He had seen before men like these men—English sectaries abroad, men who stood with the Huguenots in France, and in the Low Countries fought Spain and the Devil with the soldiers of Orange. Estranged or banished from home, lonely and insular, fighting upon what they esteemed the Lord's side, in the place where they esteemed the fight to be hottest, they exhibited small, small love and comradeship for those in whose cause they fought. Only, truly, in conventicles, could they seem to warm to people of another tongue and history. Ultra-zealous, more | | 27 Calvin than Calvin, trained to harshness in a frightful war, iron, fanatic, back now they came to England, the most admirable soldiers and the most uncharitable men!

The two stood in their plain doublets, their great boots, their small falling collars. They were tall and hard of aspect, the one bearded, the other with a pale, clean-shaven, narrow, enthusiast's face. The home-keeping son also had risen from table. He stood beside his mother, coughing and pressing a cloth to his lips.

The bearded man spoke. "Good-morrow, friend"

"Good-morrow, friend," answered Aderhold.

"You spoke that," said the bearded man, "as though you were indeed a friend, whereas we know you to be but a Cap and Bells friend."

"I do not take your meaning," said Aderhold. "I would be friends—no man knows how I would be friends with men."

The shaven man spoke. "Thou hypocritical prelate's man! Why did you let slip to my mother that the Cap and Bells was your place of revelling and roistering and blackening God to his face? As if, before we went to the wars, the Cap and Bells was not known for what it was—yea, and is! for my mother saith the leopard hath not changed his spots nor the Ethiop his skin—a bishop-loving, stained-glass praising, Prayer-Book upholding, sacrament kneeling, bowing, chanting, genuflecting, very pillar and nest of prelacy! drinking-place of all they who, | | 28 if they had their wicked will, would give into the hand of ruin—yea, would pillory and stock, yea, would put to the rack if they might, yea, would give to the flame if they were strong enough!—the Lord's chosen people, sole fence between this land and the fate of the cities of the plain!''

"There have been before now," said the bearded man, "spies sent among the Lord's people, and always such have been received and comforted in that same house—to wit, the Cap and Bells!"

The consumptive took the red cloth from his lips. "Mother, mother, did I not say, when the man came, that he had a strange look?"

"Aye, Andrew," said the mother, "he went like a man with a guilty load and watched his shadow.—But I had you to think on, and the need for bread, and he paid me, which, God knoweth! they do not always do. And it came not into my head, until, before he thought, he had said the 'Cap and Bells,' that he might be here to spy and wring news of us—cozening us to tell reportable tales of the Lord's Saints!" She stopped, then spoke on with a high, restrained passion and triumph. "But now—but now I think that that is what he is! But now I am not afraid—and now he may get his deserts—seeing that the new King is surely for us, and that my sons have come home!"

"The new King!" exclaimed the shaven man. "The new King is an old Stuart! Lean upon that reed and it will pierce your hand! I tell that to my | | 29 brother and to you, mother, and you will not believe—"

"Time will show," said the bearded man impatiently. "Time will show which of us is right. But to-day my mother can turn out this bishop's man, neck and crop! Yea, and if he murmurs—"

He made a step forward, a big-boned, powerful man, grim of countenance. His hand shot out toward the physician.

Aderhold gave back a step, then recovered himself. "You are mistaken," he said. "I am no spy and I am no bishop's man. Like you, I have been from England. I return poor and seeking physician's work. Desiring lodging, I asked at this house as I had asked at others, and as honestly as a man may. For the Cap and Bells, I knew naught of it nor of its frequenters. I crossed its threshold but once, and so ill did the place suit me that I am not like to go again. I tell you the plain truth."

The woman and her sons regarded him fixedly. "What think you," asked the shaven man at last, abruptly and sternly, "of the law that maketh it an offense for a man to worship his Creator after the dictates of his own heart—yea, that would compel him to conform to practices which his soul abhorreth?"

"I think," said Aderhold, "that it is an evil law."

"You say truth," answered the shaven man. "Now tell me plainly. Believe you in copes and | | 30 stoles and altars and credence tables, in kneeling at communion, in Prayer-Book and surplice and bowing when the name is mentioned, in bishops and archbishops and pride of place before God?"

Aderhold looked at him dreamily. The fear of physical injury, which was the weakness that most beset him, was gone by. He had at times a strange sense of expansion, accompanied by a differentiation and deepening of light. The experience—he knew it to be inward, and never steadfast, very fleeting—returned to him now. The room looked world-wide, the four interlocutors tribes and peoples. "My mind does not dwell overmuch," he said, "upon matters such as these. They are little matters. The wrong is that a man should be made to say they are necessary and great matters, and, to avoid falseness, be made to fight dwarfs as though they were giants.—I need no priest in cope or surplice or especial dress when all that I am lifts in contemplation and resolve. I need not kneel when All communes with All. No slave is my soul. Would I pray, I can pray without book, and would I not, no book held before my face hath power to pray for me. If I bowed my head at each thought of the mystery that surrounds us, I would not with over-much frequency walk erect, for I think much and constantly of that mystery. If I bow my head without thought—an idiot may do the same. As for prelates and they who are called 'spiritual princes'—I have seen not one who is not a man-chosen master of a man-built house."

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The woman spoke uncertainly. "If we have been mistaken in you, sir,—"

"What you say has truth," said the bearded man. "But it also has a strangeness and rings not like our truth. . . . If you are a Brownist, this house will have naught to do with you!"

"I am not a Brownist," said Aderhold wearily. The sense of space widening off and intenser light was gone. Never yet had it stayed but the fewest of moments, and, going, it threw life back upon itself. . . .

But the second son, who had been standing with an abstracted and distant look, started and spoke. "Let him alone, mother and my brother! Whatever he be, he hath no ill-will nor guile—" He turned to the table. "Are you hungry?" he asked. "Sit down and eat with us."

Aderhold dwelt in this house some days longer. He did not again see the two sons; they had taken horse and ridden to visit some returned comrade or officer in the country. The woman he saw, and sometimes talked with, but she had ceased to be curious about him, and they chiefly spoke of the consumptive boy. He was near death. The physician could only give something that should make the nights pass more swiftly, less painfully.

He himself wished to see a physician, the physician to whom, as to Cecil, he had been recommended by a great noble of France, but whom he had not seen since that day in Richmond, after that hour in the | | 32 Queen's chamber. He had gone to his house to enquire—he was yet out of London, he would be home on such a day. Aderhold went then, but could not see him; waited two days, and was again denied; went in another three, and was admitted. The physician was alone, in a small room, and his manner dry and cold.

If Aderhold still nursed a hope it was a faint and failing one. Before that day in Richmond the hope had been strong. This physician was a skilled man and knew skill when he saw it—the great Frenchman had written with a guarded enthusiasm, but yet with enthusiasm of what Gilbert Aderhold might do—the London physician had let drop a hint that he himself had thought at times of an assistant—if not that, he could certainly speak a word in season in another quarter. Aderhold had hoped—after Richmond he had hoped less strongly. Now he found that hope was failing. What had happened? What always happened?

The physician continued standing. The room opened upon a garden, and outside the lattice window there showed a tender mist of budding tree and shrub. "You were so good," said Aderhold, "as to bid me come to you upon your return."

"I wished," said the physician, "to give all weight and recognition to the commendation of the Duke of——." A grey cat came and rubbed against his ankle. He stooped and lifting the creature to the table beside him stood stroking it. "The commen- | | 33 dation of great noblemen is at times like their largesse. It often falls—through, of course, no fault of theirs—before the stranger and the unworthy."

"If I be unworthy," said Aderhold, "yet I am not strange to that nobleman, nor, I think, unloved by him. He has been my good patron, almost, I might dare to say, my friend."

"Aye?" said the physician. "It has come to Court ears, with other French news, that the Duke is out of favour. . . . Moreover, a friend of my own has lately returned from Paris where he had long resided. He is a man of the world, with a great interest in life and a knowledge of what is talked about, small things as well as great. He told me"—the physician paused—"of you!"

"Yes," Aderhold said dully; "of me?"

"He brought you in as a slight case, but typical, of what grows up in the narrow strip between religious wars and factions, between Leaguer and Huguenot—to wit, something that is neither Catholic nor Protestant, which the Leaguer would burn and the Huguenot would flay! He told me of your case and your trial and imprisonment, and how none would help you, neither Papist nor Reformed, but only this one nobleman whose child, it seems, you had healed, and even he could only help by helping you forth from France." The physician continued to draw his hand over the grey fur." I quarrel with that noble-man for considering that an atheist might prosper here in England, and for deceivingly writing to me | | 34 only of his skill in all that pertained to his art! I might," said the physician, "have become involved in what discovery and disfavour you may bring upon yourself in this realm!"

"I am not," said Aderhold, "an atheist. Sanction and authority and restraint are within."

The other shrugged. "Oh, your fine distinctions!" He went to the window and set it wider so that the whole green garden and white and rosy branches of bloom seemed to come into the room. "I am not," he said, with his back to the lattice, "myself a theologian. By nature I am a 'live and let live' man. Peter, Luther, Calvin, Mohammed, and Abraham each may have had his own knowledge of heaven and hell! I will not quarrel with knowledge for being various. I am tolerant—I am tolerant, Master Aderhold! But I hold with emphasis that you must not inculpate others—no, you must not let the edge of your mantle of heresy touch another! It were base ingratitude, for instance, were you—"

"I have been careful," said Aderhold, "to mention your name to no one. I have led since seeing you a retired and soundless life. I am a stranger in this city and none knows my life, nor feels an interest in it."

The physician's countenance showed relief. "I did not know of what folly you might not have been capable!" He stroked the cat, moved a few paces about the room and returned. "I regret that I can give you no aid. Indeed, I must tell you plainly that | | 35 I owe it to my family and my patients and my place—which is no slight one—in the esteem of this city, to refuse all association with a man who at any hour may fall under suspicion and prosecution." He paused. "I may say to you once, and this once only, that I find your case a hard one. I certainly advise you not to be stiff-necked, but living in the world to conform to the world. Philosophize, if you choose, but inwardly, inwardly, man!"

He spoke quite amiably, even genially. It was apparent that Aderhold had taken his dismissal, that he was not going to beg or be distressful. He considered through the open casement the height of the sun. He could give the unfortunate man a minute or two longer. "Let us speak a moment," he said, "of our art. London is thronged with doctors. I tell you truly that there is scant room for another, even were the circumstances not as they are, and you were as like others as you are unlike. However still a tongue you may keep,—and I think you may betray yourself oftener than you think,—you will eventually be found out." He lifted his finger impressively. "Now the temper of the time is religious and growing ever more so. The Italian and antique spirit that I remember is going—is almost gone. We are all theologians and damn the whole world outside of our particular ark. People of the old faith, people of the established faith, people of the Presbytery—each of the three detests and will persecute the remaining two. Right and left suffer | | 36 from the middle, which is in power, as the middle—and the remaining other—would suffer were the right or left in power. War, secret or open, war, war! and they only unite to plague a witch or to run to earth and burn for heresy one like you who belongs not to right nor left nor middle. The tolerant, humane, philosophic heart dissents—but few, my friend, are tolerant and humane, too few, too few! All this being so, I do not advise you to remain in London—no, I should not, were you Galen himself!"

Aderhold stood gazing at the garden without. There were thorn hedges everywhere—across all paths. "I do not know," he said, "where I should go—"

"My advice," said his fellow physician, "would be to travel to some smaller town that hath never received a whisper from France. And now"—he rose—"and now I must bid you good-bye, for an important personage expects me at this hour."

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