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 May three years since Joan had smelled the apple tree in blossom by the well, or had marked the heartsease amid the grass. She drew her bucket of water, flashing, dripping, and cold, rested it upon the well-stone, and regarded with grey eyes the cottage and its handbreadth of garden.

She sighed. There had been much of advantage in that long sojourn with her uncle the huntsman, in his better house than this, a mile in the castle wood, above the town so much greater than Hawthorn Village! There had been the town to walk to, the bright things to see, the bustle in the streets, the music in the church, the occasional processions and pageants, the fairs and feast days. For the castle itself, the great family was not often there, but the housekeeper had been friendly to her, and she had been let to roam as she pleased through the place, half-mediæval stronghold, half new walls and chambers echoing Tudor luxury. Four times in the three years the family had been in residence, and then there were other things to watch, though at a most respectful distance!... Once there had been a masque in the park, and, as many figures were needed, there had come an order from the countess. | | 83 A page had brought it, and had explained in detail, what was wanted. There was to be a whole pageant of scenes from the mythology. She was to enact a virgin who had been very swift of foot—she was to run swiftly from north to south across the great pleasaunce—a young gentleman, who would be running likewise, would throw before her, one after the other, three yellow apples. She would stoop and pick them up while he ran on. She nodded. "Yes, I know. Atalanta." The page, who was younger than herself but comely and court-bred, evinced surprise. "Wherever, Phyllis, didst get that learning?" She said that her father was clerkly and talked to her of things in books.... The masque! It was a world to remember, the masque! How beautiful all things had been, and everybody—and kind! But there had never been but the one masque, and soon the family had gone away.

She was thinking, as she stood by the well, that now perhaps they would come back this May and she would not be there. She drew a long sigh, and missed the castle, the park and the wood, the town and the sight of the river and the bridge, over which something was always passing. She missed, too, her uncle the huntsman, who had died; missed his larger house and the greater coming and going; missed her room, where, standing at her window, she saw the moon rise behind the Black Tower. And now her uncle was dead who had been a single man, and who had kept them from month to month and | | 84 year to year with his loud protest each time they talked of lifting a burden and going back to Hawthorn Forest. . . . But he was dead, and his house passed to the new huntsman. Joan and her father loaded their clothes and such matters upon a cart, mounted it themselves, and with some farewells to castle neighbours took the road to their own small cottage, miles away.

She sighed, but then, with her eyes upon the heartsease, determined to make the best of it. It was not as though she did not love the cottage and the garden, where presently all the flowers would bloom again, and Hawthorn Forest, where she had wandered freely from childhood. She did love them, she had a warm love for them; and sometimes at her uncle's she had pleased herself with being pensive and missing them sadly. She loved her father, too; the old clerk and she were good friends, so good friends, in an age of parental severity and filial awe, as to have scandalized the housekeeper at the castle. Moreover, though they were poor and had always lived so retired, and though the country hereabouts afforded few neighbours, and though she had never known many people in the village, having been but a young maid when she went away, there were those whom she remembered, and she looked forward to a renewal of acquaintance. And the day was very rich and fair, and a robin singing, and waves of fragrance blowing from the fruit trees, and she was young and strong and innately joyous. She | | 85 broke a branch of apple blossom and stuck it into the well water; she stooped and plucked a knot of heartsease and fastened it at her bodice throat. Then she lifted the bucket to her head, and moved with it, tall and steady, over the worn stones of the path to the cottage door.

Arrived within, she fell to her baking, in a clean kitchen with doors and windows wide. She was a notable cook, her mother having trained her before she died. Moreover, what she touched she touched like an artist. She made no useless steps or movements, she neither dallied nor hurried; all went with a fine assurance, an easy "Long ago I knew how—but if you ask mehow I know—!" She sang as she worked, a brave young carolling of Allan-à-Dale and John-à-Green and Robin Hood and Maid Marian.

The good odour of the bread arose and floated out to mingle with the may time of the little garden. Old Roger Heron, short, ruddy, and hale for all he was so clerkly, came in from his spading. "That smells finely!" he said. He dipped a cup into the well water and drank.

"Aye, and it is going to taste finely!" answered Joan.

"'I have heard talk of bold Robin Hood,
And of brave Little John,
Of Friar Tuck and Will Scarlet,
Locksley and Maid Marian—"'

Her father put down the cup, moved to the settle, and sitting deliberately down, began with delibera- | | 86 tion one of his talks of a thinking man. " Look you, Joan! Goodman Cole and I have been discoursing. We were talking of religion."

"Aye?" said Joan. She spread a white cloth upon the table and set in the midst a bow-pot of cherry bloom. "Religion. Well?"

"You should say the word with a heavier tone," said old Roger. "'Religion.'—Things are n't here as they were at your uncle's—rest his soul! Modesty in religion and a decent mirth seemed right enough, seeing that the earl was minded that way and on the whole the town as well. So the old games and songs and ways went somehow on—though everything was stiffening, even there, and not like it was when I was young and the learned were talking of the Greeks. But times have changed! It seems the Lord wishes gloom, or the minister says he does. If it was begun to be felt in the castle and the town, and it was,—your uncle and I often talked about it,—it shows ten times more here. Aye, it showed three years ago, but Goodman Cole says it grows day by day, and that now if you appear not with a holy melancholy you are little else than a lost soul!"

'"Holy melancholy' and 'lost souls,'" said Joan. "I know not why it is that those words together sound to me so foolish.—Doth it help anything when I am sad?

"'—Friar Tuck and Will Scarlet,
Locksley and Maid Marian—'"
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"Stop, child!" said old Roger. "I'm in earnest and so must you be. Look you, Joan! you're all I 've got, and folk will be fanciful about all they've got and try to guard it all around. And it came into my head while Goodman Cole was talking—and it was he who put it there, talking of your looks, and saying that you had better go mim-mouth to church, and that you had a strange way of looking straight at a body when you spoke, which did n't become a woman, who ought always to go with a downcast look—it came into my head, I say, that we're poor and without any protector and fairly strange here now, and how evil tongues are as common as grass, and I said to myself that I 'd give you a good cautioning—"

"Mim-mouth and downcast look and go to heaven so!" said Joan. "I wonder what that heaven's like!"

"You mustn't talk that way," said old Heron. "No, I know, you don't do so when others are by, but you'll forget sometime. Mistress Borrow at the castle said that you were a very pagan, though an innocent one! That came into my head, too, while he talked. And another thing came that sounds fanciful—but a myriad of women and girls have found it no fancy! Listen to me, Joan. Since we got our new King, and since the land has grown so zealous and finds Satan at any neighbour's hearth, there's been a growing ferreting out and hanging of witches. In Scotland it's a fever and a running | | 88 fire and we 're not as far as the antipodes from Scotland. Now I 'm not denying that there are witches; the Bible says there are, and so, of course, there must be. But it knocks at my head that many a silly old woman and many a young maid has been called a witch that was none! And it came to me that Hawthorn's not the castle and the castle wood, and that if Mistress Borrow called you pagan and said that you stepped and spoke too freely for a woman, it's like that some here might take it on themselves to think pure ill—"

"I see not how they could," said Joan. "There is no ill to think.—Do you mean that I am not to sing about Robin Hood and Maid Marian?"

"I like to hear you," said old Roger; "but are n't there godly hymns? Use your own good sense, my girl."

Joan at the window looked out upon the flowering trees and the springing grass and robin redbreast carolling in the pear tree. When she turned her eyes were misty. " I like to sing what I feel like singing. If it chances to be a hymn, well and good—but a forced hymn, meseems, is a fearful thing! I like to go free, and I like not a mim-mouth and a downward look. But I like not to bring trouble on you, and I do not like either to have them set upon me for ungodliness, nor to have some fool cry upon me for a witch! So I'11 be careful. I promise you. She laid the trenchers upon the table and turned out from its pan a warm and fragrant loaf. "I'll be careful— | | 89 oh, careful!—And now when are we going to get our beehives from the forester's wife?"

That afternoon she took her distaff and sat in the doorway and span. The cottage stood some distance from Hawthorn Forest road, but there was a narrow greened-over path that wound between. The robin sang lustily; daffodils, edging the walk to the gate, were opening their golden cups. Old Heron had gone a mile to engage Hugh the thatcher to come to-morrow to mend the roof. Joan span and span and thought of the castle and the masque.

An hour passed. The gate-latch clicked and she looked up. An old woman, much bent and helping herself with a knobby stick, was coming toward her between the rows of daffodils. When she reached the doorstone Joan saw how wrinkled and drear were her face and form. "Good-day," she said in a quavering voice.

"Good-day," answered Joan.

"Good-day," said the old woman again. "You don't remember me, but I remember you, my pretty maid! I mind you running about in the woods, playing as it were with your shadow, with your hair braided down! Now you wear it under a cap as is proper. I 'm Mother Spuraway, who lives beyond the mill-race."

"I remember now," said Joan. "I had forgotten. Will you sit down?"

She brought a stool and set it for her visitor. The other lowered herself stiffly. "Oh, my old bones! | | 90 I 'll sit for a minute, sweetheart, but what I wanted to ask you—" She took Joan by the apron and held her with shaking fingers. "I wanted to ask you if you would n't be Christian enough to spare me a measure of meal? I 'll swear by the church door and the book of prayer that I have n't had bite nor sup since this time yesterday!" She fell to whimpering.

Joan stood, considering her with grey eyes. "Yes, I'll give you some meal. But what! They used to say that you were well-to-do."

"Aye, aye!" said Mother Spuraway. "They said sooth. I did n't lack baked nor brewed, no, nor silver sixpences!—for, look you, I knew all the good herbs. But alack, alack! times are changed with me. . . .I'm hungry, I 'm hungry, and my gown's ragged that once was good and fine, and my shoes are not fit to go to church in. Woe's me—woe's me—woe's me!"

Joan went indoors and returned with a piece of bread and a cup of milk. Mother Spuraway seized them and ate and drank with feeble avidity. "Good maid—a good maid!"

"Why do they come to you no more?" asked Joan.

Mother Spuraway put down the empty cup. "Partly, there's a leech come to these parts has stolen my trade. I'll not say he does n't know the herbs, too, but I knew them as well as he, and I knew them first! But mostly, oh, dear heart! because there's been raised a hue and cry that I did n't cure | | 91 with innocence—as though I did n't cure as innocently as him! But I 'm old—I 'm old! . . . I never had aught to do even with white magic. There was healing in the herbs and that and good sense was enough. But I 'm old—old, and they bear hard upon women. . . . And I hear that there's a buzz of talk and I may be taken up. I know Master Clement's been against me since ever he came to the parish—'' She began to weep, painful slow tears of age.

Joan looked at her with a knitted brow. "There, mother, there, mother! I would not let them that hurt me make me weep. See! I'll give you your meal, and it will all come straight." She brought her a full measure, and a great share of her baking of bread besides.

Mother Spuraway blessed her for a pitiful maid, got painfully to her feet, and said she would be going. "You've good herbs in your garden, but I see no rue. If I be straying this way again I 'll bring you a bit for planting."

She went away, her stick supporting her, her eyes still searching the little leaves and low plants on each side of the garden path and the faint, winding track between gate and forest road. Joan, in the doorway, let her distaff fall and sat pondering, her elbow on her knee, her chin in her hand, and her grey eyes upon the fruit trees. "Shall I tell father—or shall I not tell father? If I tell him, he will say she must not come again. . . . And how am I going to help | | 92 her coming again?" In the end, she determined to tell her father, but to represent to him how hard it was going to be—and how it seemed to her poor-spirited, loveless, and mean—And as she got this far, she saw another visitor coming.

She knew this visitor, and springing up, went to the gate to greet her. Before she left this countryside she had often, of Sundays in Hawthorn Church, sat beside Alison Inch, the sempstress's daughter. And after she went to the castle Alison had twice been with her mother to the town, and they had climbed the hill to the castle wood and the hunts-man's house to see their old neighbours, though, indeed, they had not been such near neighbours. Alison was older than she, but at the castle hers had been the advantage, she being at home with a number of goodly things, and Alison showing herself somewhat shy and deferential. But now the castle and the park and her uncle's house were a dream, and Joan was back in Heron's cottage that was not on the whole so good as the Inches' nor so near the village. Moreover, she was now almost a stranger, and knowledge and familiarity with all matters were on Alison's side, to say nothing of her year or two longer in the world. Alison felt her advantages, and was not averse to the other's recognition of them. Joan and she kissed, then moved somewhat saunteringly up the path to the doorstone.

"Mother and I went to take her new smocks to Madam Carthew, and then when we came back it | | 93 was so fine, and mother said that she would go to see Margery Herd, and if I chose I might walk on here.—The place looks," said Alison, "as though you had never gone away."

"Nay, there are things yet to do," said Joan, "and that though we've been here well-nigh a month. You would not think how hard it is to get back the gear we left with folk! They had the use until we came back, and they knew that we would come back—but now you might think that we were asking their things instead of our own! Three women have looked as black at me! We got our churn but yesterday, and the forester's wife still has our beehives. A dozen of her own, and when we ask for our poor three back again, you might suppose we 'd offered to steal the thatch from over her head!"

They sat down, facing each other, on the sun-flecked doorstone.

Alison looked about her. "I've never seen daffodillies bloom like these!—Joan, I heard a story on thee the other day."

"What story?"

"They said thou hadst a lover in the town—a vintner."

"I never had a lover, town or country."

Alison made round eyes. "What! no one ever asked you to wed?"

"I said not that. I said that I never had a lover."

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Alison fell to plaiting her apron, her head on one side. "Mother says that your father's that sunk in notions of the learned that he'd never think of it, but she wonders that your uncle did n't see fit to find you a husband."

"Does she? Well, one wonders over one thing and one over another."

"There are very few bachelors and marriageable men hereabouts," said Alison, "but I suppose you'll get that one of them you set your cap for."

"And why do you suppose that?"

Alison, her head still on one side, looked aslant at the returned friend. "Oh, men are all for strange and new! Your tallness, now, that most people count a fault, and that colour hair and that colour eyes . . . Yes, you'll get the one you want."

"And if I want none?"

"Oh!" said Alison, and laughed somewhat shrilly. "Have you got an elfin man for your true-love? You 'll not cheat me else with your ' And if I want none?'"

Joan twirled her distaff. "I do not wish to cheat you.—And you went with the smocks to Madam Carthew's?"

Alison bent, slipped off her shoe, and shook out of it a minute pebble. "And what do you mean by that?"

"Mean? I mean naught," said Joan. "I meant that she was a great lady, and the squire's house must be fine to see. What didst think I meant?"

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But Alison would not divulge. All that came was, "I noted you last Sunday, how you looked aside, during the singing, at the gentry in the squire's pew! But they are godly people, and if you think that they looked aside—"

"In God's name!" said Joan, "what is the matter with the wench?"

But before she could find that out, here came one back—Mother Spuraway, to wit. She came hobbling up the green path to the gate, and stood beckoning. Joan rose and went to her. Mother Spuraway held in her hand a green herb taken up by the root with earth clinging to it.

"It is rue, dearie," she said. "There was a clump of it left by the burned cot a little way off. So I dug it up for you—"

Joan took it. "Thank you. I'll plant it now."

"You've got company," said Mother Spuraway. "I 'll not come in. But I wanted to do somewhat for you—"

She turned and hobbled off, her wavering old figure wavering away upon the twisting path.

Joan went back to the doorstone with the rue in her hand.

"Was n't that Mother Spuraway?" asked Alison. "I would n't be seen talking to her. She's a witch."

"She's no such thing," said Joan. "She's only a wretched, poor old woman. Now, what did you mean about Sunday and church?"

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But her father came round the corner of the cottage, bringing with him Hugh the thatcher to have a look at the torn roof. Alison rose; the sun was getting low and she must be going. She went, and Joan, at that time, did not find out what she had meant.

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