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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IT was full dusk when the London travellers did at last win away from the Rose Tavern. The evening was cold, the snow yet falling in slow, infrequent flakes. The merchants and their men, together with Master Anthony Mull, first took the road. Then followed Master Harry Carthew, straight and stern, upon a great roan mare. In the rear came on slowly old John Hardwick, his servant Will, and the physician Gilbert Aderhold. These three soon lost sight of the others, who, pushing on, came to the town, rest, and bed, ere they had made half the distance.

At last, very late, the place loomed before them. They passed through dark and winding streets, and found an inn which Master Hardwick knew. Together Will and Aderhold lifted the old man from his horse and helped him into the house and into a great bed, where he lay groaning through the night, the physician beside him speaking now and again a soothing and steadying word.

He could not travel the next day or the next. Finally Aderhold and Will wrung permission to hire a litter and two mules. On the third morning they placed Master Hardwick in the litter and all took the street leading to the road which should bring them


in the afternoon to the Oak Grange. Going, they passed a second inn, and here Master Harry Carthew suddenly appeared beside them upon his great roan. It seemed that affairs had kept him likewise in this town, but that now he was bound in their direction.

The snow had passed into rain. The weather had moderated, the rain ceased, and this morning there was pure blue sky and divine sunlight. The latter bathed the unpaved streets, the timbered, projecting fronts of houses, guildhall and shops and marketplace, and the tower and body of a great and ancient abbey church. Beyond the church the ground sloped steeply to the river winding by beneath an arched bridge of stone. Above the town, commanding all, rose a castle, half-ruinous, half in repair. The streets were filled with people, cheerful in the morning air. Litter, mules, and horsemen moved slowly along. Honest Will drew a long breath. ''Fegs! Who would live in the country that could live in a town?"

Aderhold was riding beside him, Carthew being ahead on his great roan mare. ''Tell me something,'' said the physician, "of the country to which we are going."

"The country's a good country enough," said Will. "But the Oak Grange—Lord! the Grange is doleful and lonely—"

"Doleful and lonely?"

"It's all buried in black trees," said Will, "and nobody lives there but our old master."


"Where does Master Carthew live?"

"He lives in the squire's house beyond the village. He's the squire's brother."

"You're near a village?"

"Aye, the village of Hawthorn."

They rode on, Will gazing busily about him. They were still in the town, indeed in an important part of it, for before them rose the prison. Without it stood pillory and stocks, two men by the legs in the latter, a dozen children deliberately pelting them with rotten vegetables, shards, and mud. Aderhold stared with a frown, the countryman with a curious mixture of interest in the event and lumpish indifference as to the nature of it. "Aye," he repeated, "the village of Hawthorn."

"Is there," asked Aderhold, "a physician in the village?"

They had passed the prison, and were approaching the sculptured portal of the great church. "A physician?" said Will. "No. There was one, but he died two years ago. Now they send here, or the schoolmaster will bleed at a pinch or give a drench. And sometimes they go—but the parson would stop that—to old Mother Spuraway."

They were now full before the great portal of the church. Carthew, ahead, stopped his horse to speak to some person who seemed an acquaintance. His halting in the narrow way halted the mules with the litter. Master Hardwick had fallen into a doze. The physician and serving-man, standing their horses


together, looked up at the huge pile of the church, towering like a cliff immediately above them. On each side of the vast arched doorway had stood in niches the figures of saints. These were broken and gone—dragged down in the day when the neighbouring abbey was closed. But around and about, overhead and flanking the cavernous entrance, had been left certain carvings—a train of them—imps and devils and woe-begone folk possessed by the foul fiend. The fiend grinned over the shoulder of one like a monkey, he tugged like a wolf at the ear of another, he crept like a mouse from a woman's mouth. . . . Aderhold's gaze was upon the great tower against the sky and the rose-window out of which the stained glass was not yet broken. But Will looked lower. Something presently causing the physician to glance his way, he was startled at the serving-man's posture and expression. It was as though he had never seen these stone figures before—and, indeed, it proved that he had never been so closely within the porch, and that, in short, they had never so caught his attention. He was staring at them now as though his eyeballs and all imagination behind them were fastened by invisible wires to the grotesque and horrible carvings. Into his countenance came a creeping terror and a kind of fearful exaltation. Aderhold knew the look—he had seen it before, in France and elsewhere, upon peasant faces and upon faces that were not those of peasants. It was not an unusual look in his century. Again,


for the millionth time, imagination had been seized and concentrated upon the Satanic and was creating a universe to command. Will shivered, then he put his hand to his ear.

"There is nothing there," said the physician, "but your ear itself."

"Mice never come out of men's mouths," said Will. The physician knew the voice, too, the dry-throated, rigid-tongued monotone. "The comfort is that most of the wicked are women."

"Then take comfort," said Aderhold, "and come away. Those figures are but the imagination of men like yourself."

But Will was not ready to budge. "Twelfth night, I was going through the fields. They were white with snow. Something black ran across and howled and snapped at me."

"A famished wolf," said Aderhold.

"Aye, it looked like a wolf. But this is what proved it was n't," said Will. "That night in Hawthorn Forest Jock the forester set a trap. In the night-time he heard it click down on the wolf and the wolf howl. He said, says he, 'I've got you now, old demon!' and went back to sleep. But at dawn, when he went to the trap, there was blood there and a tuft of grizzled hair, but nothing else. And so he and his son followed red spots on the snow—right through the forest and across Town Road. And on the other side of the road, where the hedge comes down, they lost it clean—not a drop of blood nor


the mark of a paw on the snow. But the dog they had he ran about, and at last he lifted his head and bayed, and then he started—And where, sir, do you think he led them? He led them to the hut of old Marget Primrose between Black Hill and Hawthorn Brook. And Marget was lying huddled, crying with a bloody cut across her ankle. And they matched the hair from the trap with the hair under her cap."

"They did not match with care," said Aderhold. "And there are many ways by which a foot may be hurt."

"Nay," said the serving-man, "but when they brought the trap and thrust her leg in it the marks fitted." He continued to stare at the stone wolf tearing the ear. "That's been four years, and never since have I been able to abide the sight of a wolf!. . . Witches and warlocks and wizards and what they call incubi and succubi and all the demons and fiends of hell, and Satan above saying, 'Hist! this one!' and 'Hist! that one!' and your soul lost and dragged to hell where you will burn in brimstone, shrieking, and God and the angels mocking you and crying, 'Burn! Burn forever!'—Nay, an if they do not get your soul, still they ravage and ruin what you have on earth—blast the fields and dry the streams, slay cow and sheep and horse, burn your cot and wither your strength of a man. . . . Thicker than May flies in the air—all the time close around you, whether you see them or you don't see them—monkeys and wolves and bat wings flapping. . . .


Once something came on my breast at night—Satan, Satan avaunt!"

Aderhold leaned across, seized the bridle of the other's horse, and forcibly turned Will from further contemplation of the sculptured portal. "Come away, or you will fall down in a fit!"

Carthew ahead was in motion, the mules with the litter following. Will rode for a few paces with a dazed look which was gradually replaced by his usual aspect. The red came back into his cheeks, the spring into his figure. By the time they had reached the bridge he was ready for something palely resembling a disinterested discussion of the supernatural.

"Is n't it true, sir, that witch or warlock, however they've been roaming, must take their own shape when they cross running water?"

"Whatever shape matter takes is its own shape," said the physician, "and would be though we saw it in a thousand shapes, one after the other. I have never seen, nor expect to see, a witch or warlock."

"Why, where have you travelled, sir?" asked the yeoman bluntly; then, without waiting for an answer, "They're hatching thick and thicker in England, though not so thick as they are in Scotland. In Scotland they're very thick. Our new King, they say, does most fearfully hate them! Parson preached about them not long ago. He said that we'd presently see a besom used in this kingdom that would sweep such folk from every corner into


the fire! He read from the Bible and it said, 'Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live!'"

He spoke with considerable cheer, the apple-red back in his cheeks. "It's good to feel," he said, "that they are nearly all women."

They were trampling across the bridge, on either hand the sparkling water, above their heads the vivid sky. "They are neither man nor woman," said Aderhold. "They are naught. There are no witches."

He had spoken abstractedly, and more unguardedly than was his wont. The words were no sooner from his tongue than he felt alarm. They were not safe words to have spoken, even in such simple company as this. He looked aside and found that Will was staring, round-eyed. "No witches?" asked Will slowly. "Parson saith that none but miscreants and unbelievers—"

"Tell me about your church and parson," said Aderhold calmly, and, aided by a stumble of Will's horse and some question from the litter behind them, avoided for that time the danger.

They crossed the bridge and left behind the winding river and the town that climbed to the castle, clear-cut and dark against the brilliant sky. Before them, lapped in the golden sunshine, spread a rich landscape. Field and meadow, hill and dale, crystal stream and tall, hanging woods, it flickered and waved in the gilt light and the warm, blowing wind. There were many trees by the wayside, and in their


branches a singing and fluttering of birds. The distance shimmered; here was light and here were violet shadows and everywhere hung the breath of spring. From a hilltop they saw, some miles away, roofs and a church tower. "Hawthorn Village," said Will. "The Oak Grange is two miles the other side."

Master Hardwick parted the curtains of the litter and called to the physician. His heart, he said, was beating too slowly; it frightened him, he thought it might be going to stop. Aderhold reassured him. He had a friendly, humorous, strengthening way with his patients; they brightened beneath his touch, and this old man was no exception. Master Hardwick was comforted and said that he thought he could sleep a little more. His lean hand clutched the other's wrist as he stood dismounted beside him, litter and mules and Will on the sumpter horse having all stopped in the lee of a green bank disked with primroses. Master Hardwick made signs for the physician to stoop. "Eh, kinsman," he whispered. "You and I are the only Aderholds in this part of the world. And you are a good leech—a good leech! Would you stay at the Oak Grange for your lodging, man? I've no money—no money at all—but I'd lodge you—"

The miles decreased between the cavalcade and the village. Aderhold was riding now alone, Carthew still ahead, and Will fallen back with the litter. Looking about him, the physician found something very rich and fair in the day and the landscape. Not


for a long time had he had such a feeling of health and moving peace, a feeling that contained neither fever nor exhaustion. There was a sense of clarity, strength, and fineness; moreover, the scene itself seemed to exhibit something unusual, to have a strangeness of beauty, a richness, a quality as of a picture where everything is ordered and heightened. It had come about before, this certain sudden interfusion, or permeation, or intensity of realization, when all objects had taken on a depth and glow, lucidity, beauty, and meaning. The countryside before him was for an appreciable moment transfigured. He saw it a world very lovely, very rich. It was noble and good in his eyes—it was the dear Earth as she might always be. . . . The glow went as it had come, and there lay before him only a fair, wooded English countryside, sun and shadow and the April day.

He saw the village clearly now, with a sailing of birds about the church tower. Carthew, who had kept steadily ahead, occupied apparently with his own meditations, checked his horse and waited until the other came up with him, then touched the roan with his whip and he and the physician went on together.

There was something about this young man that both interested and repelled. He was good-looking and apparently intelligent. Silence itself was no bar to liking, often it was quite the reverse. But Carthew's was no friendly and flowing quiet. His silence


had a harsh and pent quality. He looked often like a man in a dream, but the dream had in it no suavity, but appeared to contemplate high and stern and dreadful things. Aderhold looked instinctively first at a man's eyes. Carthew's eyes were earnest and intolerant. In the lower part of his face there was something that spoke of passions sunken, covered over, and weighted down.

The two rode some little distance without speaking, then Carthew opened his lips abruptly. "How do you like this country?"

"I like it well," said Aderhold. "It is a fair country."

"Fair and unfair," answered the other. "It rests like every other region under the primal Curse—The old man, back there, has taken a fancy to you and calls you his kinsman. Do you expect to bide at the Oak Grange?"

"I think it truth that I am his kinsman," answered Aderhold. "For the other—I do not know."

"He is misliked hereabouts," said Carthew. "He is old and miserly. Those who have goods and gear like him not because he will not spend with them, and those who have none like him not because he gives nothing. The Oak Grange is a ruinous place."

The village now opened before them, a considerable cluster of houses, most of them small and poor, climbing a low hill and spreading over a bit of meadow. The houses were huddled together, but


they enclosed a village green and here and there rose old trees, or showed a tiny garden. At the farther end, on the higher ground, the church lifted itself, dominating. Beyond it ran the highway still. The landscape was fair, with hill and dale, and to the right, against the horizon, violet-hued and misty, an old forest.

Aderhold looked somewhat wistfully at the scene before him. He had passed through much of harm and peril. Body and mind he wanted rest, quiet routine, for a time some ease. "It looks a place where peace might be found," he said.

"Five years ago," said Carthew, "we had the sweating sickness. Many died. Then all saw the shadow from the lifted Hand."

"It is wholesome now?"

"Aye," answered the other, "until sin and denial again bring bodily grief."

Aderhold glanced aside at his companion. The latter was riding with a stern and elevated countenance, his lips moving slightly. The physician knew that look no less than he had known the serving-man's.

"Is it not," demanded Carthew, "is it not marvellous how the whole Creation groaneth and travaileth with the knowledge of her doom! How contemptible and evil is this world! Yet here we are sifted out—and not the wise man of old, nor the heathen, nor the ignorant, nor the child in his cradle is excused! Is it not marvellous how, under our very feet, men and women and babes are burning in


hell! How, for Adam's sin, all perish save only the baptized believer—and he is saved in no wise of his own effort and merit, but only of another's! How God electeth the very damned—and yet is their guilt no whit the less! Is it not marvellous!"

"Aye, fabulously marvellous," said Aderhold.

"The sense of sin!" pursued Carthew. "How it presses hard upon my heart! The sense of sin!"

Aderhold was silent. He possessed a vivid enough realization of his many and recurring mistakes and weaknesses, but, in the other's meaning, he had no sense of sin.

They came to the village and rode through it, the litter arousing curiosity, allayed every few yards by Will's statements. Aderhold observed the lack of any sympathy with the sick old man, even the growling note with which some of the people turned aside. There was the usual village traffic in the crooked street, the small shops and the doorways. Children were marching with the geese upon the green, where there was a pond, and near it the village stocks. Housewives, with tucked-up skirts and with pattens,—for an April shower had made mire of the ways,—clattered to and fro or sat spinning by window or door. Many of the men were in the fields, but there were left those who traded or were mechanic, as well as the aged, sitting, half-awake, half-asleep, in sunny spots. It was the usual village of the time, poor enough, far from clean, ignorant and full of talk, and yet not without its small share of what


then counted for human flower and fruition, nor without promise of the future's flower and fruition.

They rode by the church, set in dark yews. Almost in its shadow rose a plain stone house. "Master Thomas Clement, the minister's," said Carthew. "Hawthorn hath a godly and zealous pastor! The town behind us is all for prelates and vestments and a full half at least of the old superstitions. But Hawthorn and the country to the north have purged themselves as far as they safely may."

Out upon the open road again they saw to the left, back among trees upon a low hilltop, a large and well-built house. "Carthew House," said Carthew, "where I live. But I think that I will ride on with you to the Oak Grange."

Presently, leaving the highway, they took a rough and narrow road that led, first through fields and then through uncultivated country, toward the great wood that had been for some time visible. "Hawthorn Forest," said Carthew. They rode a mile in silence, the wood growing darker and taller until it reared itself immediately before them. To the right, at some little distance from the road and almost upon the edge of the forest, stood a thatch-roofed cottage with a dooryard where, later, flowers would bloom, and under the eaves a row of beehives. "Heron's cottage," said Carthew. "Old Heron lives there, who in the old times was clerk to the steward of the castle."

They entered the wood. It was dark and old,


parts of it not having been cut since Saxon times. Their road, which was now hardly more than a cart track, crossed but an angle, the Oak Grange lying beyond in open country. But for some minutes they were sunk in a wilderness of old trees, with a spongy, leaf-thickened earth beneath the horses' hoofs. The sunshine fell shattered through an interlacing of boughs just beginning to take on a hue of spring. Every vista closed in a vaporous blue.

A woman was gathering faggots in the wood. As they came nearer she straightened herself and stood, watching them. She was young and tall, grey-eyed, and with braided hair the colour of ripe wheat. "Heron's daughter,"said Carthew when they had passed. "She should cover her hair like other women with a cap. It is not seemly to wear it so, in braids that shine."

They were presently forth from the forest; before them a stretch of fields no longer well husbanded, a stream murmuring among stones, a bit of orchard, and an old, dilapidated dwelling, better than a farm house, less than a manor house, all crusted with lichen and bunched with ivy. A little removed stood the huge old granary that had given the place its name, but it, too, looked forlorn, ruinous, and empty. "The Oak Grange,''said Carthew. ''People say that once it was a great haunt of elves and fairies, and that they are yet seen of moonlight nights, dancing around yonder oak. They dance—but every seven years they pay a tithe of their company to hell."

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