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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ADERHOLD saw no fairies, though sometimes of moonlight nights he pleased his fancy by bringing them in his mind's eye in a ring around the oak. Hours—days—weeks passed, and still he abode at the Oak Grange.

Together he and Master Hardwick had gone over an ancient record. There was the Aderhold line, intertwining with the Hardwick. The blood-tie was not close, but it was there. Back in the reign of the sixth Henry they found a common ancestor in one Gilbertus Aderhold, slain on Bosworth Field. The blood-warmth was between them. Moreover, the old man had turned with a strong liking to this present Aderhold, and besides all there was his fear of illness and death. How well to have a leech always at hand! At last it came to "Will you live here for your roof and keep? I could not give you money—no, no! I have no money to give."

Refuge—security—here in this silent place, behind the great screen of Hawthorn Wood. . . . Aderhold stayed and was glad to stay, and served the old man well for his keep. The region grew to know that here was old Master Hardwick's kinsman, brought with him when he came back from London, | | 70 to live with him and doubtless become his heir. He was a leech. Goodman Cole, living by the forest, fell ill of a racking cough and a burning fever, sent for the doctor at the Grange, was swiftly better, and sang the leech's praises. As time wore on he began to be sent for here and there, chiefly to poor people's houses. Eventually he doctored many of such people, now in the village, now in the country roundabout. Few of the well-to-do employed him; they sent to the town for a physician of name. He asked little money for his services; he did not press the poor for payment, and often as not remitted the whole. He earned enough to keep him clad, now and then to purchase him a book.

He soon came to the conclusion that whatever store of gold Master Hardwick might once have had, it was now a dwindling store. In whatever secret place in his gaunt, bare room the old man kept his wealth, he was, Aderhold thought, nearing the bottom layer. There was a rueful truth in the anxiety with which he regarded even the smallest piece of either metal he must produce and part with. And if, at the Oak Grange, there was little of outgo, there was still less of income. The land which went with the Grange was poor and poorly tilled. There was a cot or two with tenants, dulled labourers, dully labouring. Mostly they paid their rent in kind. He heard it said that in his middle life Master Hardwick had ventured with some voyage or other to the Indies, and had received in increase twenty times | | 71 his venture. If so, he thought that his venture must have been but small.

Master Hardwick kept but the one man, Will the smith's son, who did not sleep at the Grange, but came each morning and cared for the horse and the cow and the garden. Within doors there was old Dorothy, who cooked and cleaned, and, now in and now out, there strayed a lank, shy, tousle-headed boy, her nephew. The old house was dim and still, as out of the world as a house may be. Master Hardwick rarely stirred abroad. There was in truth a lack of health. The physician thought that the old man had not many years to live. Aderhold set himself with a steady kindness to doing what could be done, to giving sympathy and understanding, and when the old man wished it, companionship. Sitting in the dim house with him, facing him at table over their scant and simple fare, listening to his brief talk, the physician came to find, beneath a hard and repellent exterior, something sound enough, an honesty and plain-dealing. And Master Hardwick, with a hidden need both to feel and receive affection, turned and clung to the younger man.

Visitors of any nature rarely came to the Oak Grange. The place was as retired as though fernseed had been sprinkled about and the world really could not see it. Once, during this early summer, Harry Carthew came, riding across the stream upon his great roan. But this day Aderhold was away, one of the tenants breaking a leg and a small child being | | 72 sent wailing with the news to the Grange. And Master Thomas Clement came, alike afresh to reason with the miser and to view this new parishioner.

Aderhold saw him cross the stream by the footbridge and come on beneath the fairy oak. He knew who it was, and he had time to map his course. He had made up his mind—he was worn and weary and buffeted, he was now for peace and quiet living. He tied a millstone around the neck of the Gilbert Aderhold of Paris and sank him deep, deep! The minister stayed no great while and directed most of his discourse toward Master Hardwick. When he turned to Aderhold, the latter said little, listened much, answered circumspectly, and endued himself with an agreeing inclination of the head and an air of grave respect. When the minister was gone, he went and lay beneath the fairy oak, in the spangly twilight, his head buried in his arms.

The next Sunday he went to church and sat with a still face, watching the sands run from the pulpit glass. There were facts about the region which he had gathered. The town a few miles away with the earl's seat above it was prelatical and all for "superstitious usages."The country between town and village might be called debatable ground. But Hawthorn Village and the region to the north of it might have been approved by Calvin or by Knox.

Sitting far back, in the bare, whitewashed church, he remarked men and women truly happy in their religion, men and women who showed zeal if not | | 73 happiness, men and women who wore zeal because it was the fashionable garment, men and women, born followers, who trooped behind zeal in others, and uttered war-cries in a language not their own. m In the pulpit there was flaming zeal. The sermon dealt with miracles and prodigies, with the localities of heaven and hell, with Death and the Judgement—Death that entered the world five thousand and six hundred and odd years ago. "For before that time, my hearers, neither man nor animal nor flower nor herb died!''

Aderhold walked that summer far and wide, learning the countryside. Now he wandered in deep woods, now he climbed the hills and looked upon the fair landscape shining away, now he entered leafy, hidden vales, or traced some stream upward to its source, or downward to the murmur of wider waters. Several times he walked to the town. Here was a bookshop, where, if he could not buy, he could yet stand awhile and read. . . . He loved the view of this town with the winding river and the bridge, and above the climbing streets the old castle and the castle wood. He liked to wander in its streets and to mark the mellow light upon its houses. Now and then he went into the great church where the light fell through stained glass and lay athwart old pillars. Once he found himself here, sitting in the shadow of a pillar, when people began to enter. Some especial service was to be held, he knew not wherefore. The organ rolled and he sat where he was, for he loved | | 74 music. There was a sermon, and it was directed against Puritan and Presbyterian, and more especially against that taint of Republicanism which clung to their Geneva cloaks. No such imputation breathed against the surplice.The Divine Right of Kings.—The duty of Passive Obedience.—Authority! Authority! Authority! It rolled through the church, boomed forth with passion.

Aderhold, coming out into the sunshine, walked through the town and found himself upon the London road. It was high summer, the sun yet far aloft, and when it sank the round pearl of the moon would rise. He had not before walked upon this road. An interest stirred within him to view the country toward the Rose Tavern, travelled through in the darkness that night. He left the town behind him and walked southward. Between two and three miles out, he saw before him a little rise in the road, and crowning it, a gibbet with some bones and shrivelled flesh swinging in the chains. It was nothing uncommon; he had seen in France a weary number of such signposts, and on this great road, coming north from London, he had twice passed such a thing. It was so fair and soft a summer's day, the gauzy air filled with dancing sunbeams, the sky a melting blue—the very upright and cross of the gibbet faded into it and seemed robbed of horror. Indeed, long usage had to the eyes of most robbed it of frightfulness at any hour, unless it was in the dead of night when the chains creaked, creaked, and something sighed. | | 75 The traffic of the road went talking and jesting by, with hardly a glance aside at the arm across the sky.

Aderhold sat down upon the opposite bank, amid fern and foxglove, and with his chin in his hand regarded the gibbet. Now and again man and beast passed, but they paid no attention to the dusty, seated figure. For the greater while the road lay bare. He gazed, dreaming, and through the mists of time he seemed to see Judea. . . .

At last he spoke. "Carpenter of Nazareth! Man as we are men, but a Prince in the house of Moral Genius! Born with thy heritage, also, of an ancient, savage faith, in thine ears, still, old saws of doom, on thy lips at times hard sayings of that elder world, in thy mind, yet unresolved, more than one of the ancient riddles. . . . But thou thyself, through all the realm of thy being, rising into the clearer light, lifting where we all shall lift one day, transfiguring life!. . . Genius and Golden Heart and Pure Courage and Immortal Love. . . . Condemned by a Church, handed over by it to the secular arm, gone forth to thy martyr's death—and still, Sage and Seer! misunderstood and persecuted,—and still thou standest with the martyrs . . . slain afresh by many, and not least by those who call themselves thine. Wisdom, freedom, love. . . . Love—Love—Love!"

The fox-gloves nodded around him. He drew toward him a long stem and softly touched, one by one, the purple bells. "Freedom—love! . . . Thou | | 76 flower! When shall we see how thou flowest into me and I into thee?"

He let the purple stem swing back, and with his hands about his knees again regarded the gibbet; then, when some minutes had gone by, rose and pursued his way. Another half-hour and he came to a place where three roads met. A passing shepherd boy told him the name was Heron's Cross-Roads. It was a lonely place, wold and stunted wood, and in an angle, amid heath and briar, was set a blackened stake. Aderhold went across to it. In the wood was a rudely cut name, with a word or two below; the stake was set through the heart of a suicide. Nettles were about it, and some one passing had thrown an empty and broken jug of earthenware. It lay in shards. Aderhold knelt, gathered them together, and rising, laid the heap beneath the hedge.

Back upon the highway, he turned his face again to the town. It was a long way to the Oak Grange, and Master Hardwick was concerned if the house were not closed and fast at a most early hour. Heron's Cross-Roads. As Aderhold walked an association arose with the name. Heron—that was the name of the old man who owned the cottage on the edge of Hawthorn Forest. He was not there now; the cottage had been shut up and tenantless since early summer. He and his daughter were gone, Will had told him, on a long visit to the old man's brother, the earl's huntsman who lived in the castle wood above the town. No one knew when they would be | | 77 back. Most of their furnishings and household things had been loaned here or there. The dairy woman had taken their cow, some one else the beehives. Heron! He had a moment's drifting vision of the girl gathering faggots in the forest. It passed and the present day and landscape took its place. Soon he came again to the rise of ground and the gibbet so stark against the blue. He hesitated, then paused, resting as he had rested before upon a stone sunk in the wayside growth.

A horse and rider emerged with suddenness from a sunken lane upon his left, and stood still in the middle of the road—a fine horse, and a fine, richly dressed rider, a man of thirty-five with a hawk upon his gauntleted fist. Turning in the saddle he looked about him, and espying Aderhold where he sat, called to him.

"Hey, friend! Have the earl and his train passed this way?"

"I have not seen them, sir."

The other glanced around again, then beckoned with an easy command. Aderhold rose and went to him, to find that he was wanted to hold the hooded falcon while the horseman waited for the hawking party from which some accident had separated him. Aderhold took the peregrine from the other's wrist and stood stroking softly with one finger the blue-black plumage. The rider rose in his stirrups, swept the horizon with his eye, and settled back. "Dust in the distance." His voice went with his | | 78 looks—he seemed a rich and various person, who could show both caprice and steadfastness. Now he glanced downward at Aderhold. "Ha, I had not observed you before!—A travelling scholar?"

"A travelling physician, an it please you," said Aderhold, smoothing the bird with his finger, "biding at present at the Oak Grange, beyond Hawthorn Village."

"You take," said the horseman with a glance at the gibbet, "a merry signpost to rest beneath!"

"It is neither merry nor dismal," said Aderhold, "but a subject for thought. That which swung there swings there now—though shrunken and dark and answering to no lust of the eye. But that which never swung there swings there now neither. I trouble it not. It is away from here."

The other swung himself from his saddle. "I had rather philosophize than eat, drink, or go hawking—and philosophers are most rare in this region!" He took his seat upon a heap of stones, while his horse beside him fell to grazing. "Come, sit and talk, travelling scholar!—That fellow on the gibbet—that small, cognized part of him that was hanged, as you would say. Being hungry, he slew a deer for his own use, then violently resisted and wounded those sent to his hut to take him, and finally, in court he miserably defamed and maligned the laws of the land and the judge in his chair. So there he swings for an example to stealers of deer and resisters of constables, to say naught of blasphemers of proce- | | 79 dure and churls to magistrates!... What is your opinion, travelling scholar, of Authority?"

"Nay," said Aderhold, "what is yours?"

The other laughed. "Mine, Sir Prudence?—Well, at times I have thought this and at times that. Once or twice a head like Roger Bacon's has spoken. 'The swollen stream forgets its source, and the overweening son turns and with his knotted and sinewy hands chokes his mother that bore him.'"

"It is a good parable," said Aderhold. "I trust that your worship, being obviously of those in authority, will often listen to that brazen head!"

"Ah!" answered the other. "I am of that camp and not of it. My brazen head will yet get me into trouble!" He sat regarding the mound opposite, the tall upright and arm, the creaking chain, and the shapeless thing, now small, for most of the bones had fallen, which swung and dangled. "And, friend, what do you think of this matter of the Golden Age, man's perfection, Paradise, the friendship of angels and all wisdom and happiness lying, in the history of this orb, behind us?"

"If it were so," said Aderhold, "then were it well to walk backwards."

"So saith my brazen head!—Hark!"

It was a horn winding at no great distance. There came a sound of approaching horsemen, of voices and laughter. The waiting cavalier rose to his feet, caught his horse by the bridle and mounted. Aderhold gave him back the falcon. The earl and his | | 80 train, a dozen in all, gentlemen, falconers, and grooms, coming across the fields, leaped the hedge and crowded into the road, gathering into their number the rider with the hawk. Aderhold heard him named as "Sir Richard." He waved his hand to the physician—all rode away with a flash of colour and a blare of sound. A few moments, and there was only the bare highway, the little rise of ground, and the gibbet with its outstretched arm against the blue and serene sky.

Aderhold, keeping on to the town, passed along its bustling high street, and down the steep slope, beneath the shadow of the great church and the castle in its woods above, to the river and its many-arched, ancient bridge. Before him lay the fair country between the town and Hawthorn village. He travelled through it in the late, golden light, and at sunset came into Hawthorn. Children were playing and calling in the one street and several lanes, on the green, by the pond, and the village stocks. The alehouse had its custom, but, as he presently saw, most of the inhabitants of Hawthorn were gathered in a buzzing cluster before the church. A post, riding from London north, had passed through the village and left behind a dole of news. Among his items, principal to Hawthorn was this: The King, they say, will presently of his good pleasure, lighten the pains and penalties now imposed upon Papists.

Aderhold, touching the fringe of the crowd, | | 81 caught a glimpse of Master Clement, standing upon the church steps, haranguing. He caught the words, "The Scarlet Woman... Babylon... Lighten? Rather double and treble and quadruple—" Near the minister he saw Harry Carthew. He did not pause; he went by like a moth in the dusk. As the moon rose he came to the stream before the Grange, crossed it by the footbridge, and went on beneath the fairy oak to the house where one candle shone from a single window. In the middle of the night he was wakened by some one calling and throwing pebbles against his casement. The miller, a mile down the stream, was ill and groaning for the leech.

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