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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LATE that winter, after long immunity, black sickness came to the town with the great church and the castle, and cast a long, crooked finger across the river and in the direction of Hawthorn Village. In the streets of the town burned fires of juniper. Waking in the night you might hear the wheels of the death-cart. They stopped before this house, they stopped before that house. The thought trembled and shrank—one night will they stop before this house? In the daytime the bells were tolled.

Hawthorn Village tolled no bells, for to toll bells savoured of "superstitious usages."But it looked with a clammy terror at the black finger which had touched a farmhouse midway between village and town.

The plague grew worse in the town. More and yet more houses were marked and shut. The richer sort and those who could left the place, scattered through the country, not always welcome where they appeared. The mass who must stay saw the horror increase. A pall came over the place; there grew an insistent and rapid murmur of prayers. Side by side with that occurred a relaxation and neglect of usual order. The strict rule in such cases was against | | 137 people coming together in any manner of congregation whereby the infection might spread; but the watch grew sick and fear constantly sought companions. There was much drinking in alehouses and taverns, no little gathering together of one sort and another. Side by side with wild appeals and supplications to Heaven wavered a sick and wan determination to some sort of mirth. At times this spirit rose to dare-deviltry. Small crimes increased. The poor were the hardest stricken, seeing that for them starvation clanked behind disease. Theft and house-breaking grew common, while professional thieves might and did make a harvest feast. The church bells tolled. At night the death-carts increased in number, the closed houses increased in number, the juniper smoke rolled thicker and thicker.

But after one death in the farmhouse, halfway to Hawthorn, the black finger drew back. No one else at the farm was taken, the scattered houses between it and the village went unscathed; time passed and no harm came to Hawthorn. Some said the river barred the infection, others that the air was different. One or two at most called attention to the great crowding in the town, to the massed poverty and dirt,—whereas the village was open-built and reasonably clean,—and to the traffic between the town and a large seaport, whereas small was the business of Hawthorn and few' the strangers. But the most part of Hawthorn Village and the country to the north of it knew otherwise and said otherwise | | 138 with unction and lifted looks. Pestilence came like comets, as a visitation and a sign from on high. Jehovah launched the one and the other. Fire against the cities of the plain—plague against prelatical towns and castles, only not Popish by a narrow line, retainers of stained glass and images, organ-players and bowers of the head, waiting but their chance to reinstate a wearing of copes and lighting of candles! The wonder was not that the plague came, but that Jehovah had so long withheld his hand! In Hawthorn Church they prayed that the plague might cease from the afflicted town, but prayed knowing that the plague had been deserved. Now that the outstretched black finger had been definitely withdrawn, the analyst might have found in the prayer of some—not of all—a flavour of triumph. Was it not also Jehovah's doing that the pure faith was so adorned with health and vindicated?

The town grew a gloomy place indeed, filled with apprehension. People viewing it from distant hills professed to see hanging over it a darkened and quivering air of its own. The streets had a deserted look, with fires burning and none around them. The death-carts went more frequently, and the bells clanged, clanged. There was a need of physicians, those in the place being overworked and one smitten. About the time that the black finger drew back from the farmhouse, Gilbert Aderhold walked to the town and offered his services. Thereafter for weeks he was busied, day and night.

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Up in the castle above the town, a kinsman of the earl's stayed on after the hurried departure of the great family to another seat in an untouched countryside. Heir to a burdened estate and courtier out of favour, not pleased for reasons of his own to remove with the earl, and liking for another set of reasons the very solitariness of the huge old abode, assured that the infection would not mount the cliff and pass the castle wood, and constitutionally careless of danger, he asked leave to stay on, keep ward with the old housekeeper, the armour in the hall, the earl's regiment of books, and his own correspondence with foreign scholars. He stayed, and for exercise rode through the country roundabout, and now and then, to satisfy a philosophic curiosity, through the town itself. The ideas of the time as to quarantine were lax enough. The sick were shut away in the houses, purifying fires burned in the streets; if you were careful to avoid any who looked in the faintest degree as though they might be sickening, life and business might go on. The rider from the castle, when he came down into the place, carried with him and put often to his nostrils a quantity of medicated spices and perfumed grains from the Orient, carried in a small perforated silver box.

Riding so through the streets one day he came upon Aderhold, his foot upon the doorstep of a marked house. He drew rein. "Ha, the travelling scholar!—Are you physician here?"

"Until the trouble is abated."

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''Black enough trouble!'' said the rider. ''Toll, toll! The place is more ghastly than a row of gibbets."

"Abroad," said Aderhold, "I have seen this sickness in a far worse form. I have hopes that it will not outlast the winter."

The other smelled at his box of spices. "Do you feel no fear, bending over their beds?"

Aderhold shook his head. "No. It is my calling."

The man on horseback kept ten feet between them and smelled continually at his silver box, but for the rest was willing to stay and talk. "That seems to be it. The soldier will run from the pest, but face a cannon mouth. The sailor rocks upon a masthead or boards a Spanish galleon with a cutlass between his teeth, but a churchyard ghost turns him into a whimpering child! Your thinker will scale Olympus and enquire of Jove direct, but the sight of torn flesh turns him pale. To each his courage and each his fear! Each a master and each a slave."

"Aye," said Aderhold briefly, "I know that well." He put his hand upon the door behind him. "I must not stay."

The other gathered up the reins. "I am dwelling at the castle. When the plague is spent, and the air again is clean and sweet, and old clothing has been burned and new put on, then, before you travel farther, come to see me there.—I have faced cannon and fought a galleon. I would go far to have speech with an authentic ghost. A brazen head | | 141 would like me well, and I am constantly considering new Dædalus' wings. But to enter that house behind you, and stand over that swollen, ghastly, loathsomely smelling and moaning thing—no, no! There I am your abject Eastern slave."

He backed his horse farther from the house.

"Ah," said Aderhold, "I, too, have a great region where Fear is my master and sets his foot upon my neck! I will enter this house, but I make no talk of Dædalus' wings—seeing that the neighbours like it not, and that they have the whip-hand!—When all's well I'll come to the castle."

The one rode away, the other entered the plague-touched house. The first, returning home, found company, come from the southward, and so reaching the castle without passing through the town. An old nobleman, father of the countess, was here, come unexpectedly from the Court, and having no knowledge of the family flitting. Now he was in an ill-humour, indeed, and yet not very fearful of the plague, and set upon resting his old bones before he pursued his further journey. Mistress Borrow, the housekeeper, promised to make him comfortable—there were servants enough—"And your Lordship will be glad to know that Sir Richard is here. "With his lordship was a London physician of note, one that had sometimes been called to the old Queen. For years he had doctored his lordship; now, at special invitation, he was making this journey with him.

That evening at supper the talk was almost solely | | 142 of the plague. The physician had had experience in London; he had written learnedly upon the subject, and was reckoned an authority. He talked of preventives and plague-waters, and hoped that while, for his lordship's sake, he should not think of closely exposing himself, he might yet, with proper precautions, descend into the town and observe the general appearance of matters. He would be glad to give to the authorities or to the physicians in the place any advice in his power,—and then he fell to the capon, the venison pasty, and the canary. The old nobleman asked Sir Richard how he should get word to William Carthew, living beyond Hawthorn Village, of his presence at the castle. It seemed that there was some tie of old service a generation agone,—Carthew's father had owed a captaincy and other favours to the nobleman,—and now that he was dead the present squire and justice always came dutifully to see the great man upon the occasions when he was at the castle. "They tell me that he hath turned Puritan—or rather that his younger brother hath turned Puritan and draggeth William with him. A pack of crop-eared wretches! I should have thought better of John Carthew's son. I wish to see him just to tell him so.'

"One of the grooms shall be sent to Hawthorn tomorrow morning, sir. If your man be afraid of infection he may ride around the town and come in from this side."

But the Carthews—for both brothers would ride | | 143 from Hawthorn to the castle—were not afraid of infection. The older was unimaginative. As long as you did not touch nor go too near, you were safe enough. The younger brooded on other things, and was sincerely careless of any danger riding through the town might present. Neither was averse to seeing how the stricken place might look. The younger, who, truly, greatly influenced his brother, came with him primarily that he might be at hand if the castle, which was prelatical, opened upon religion.

It opened, but only in the person of the old nobleman. Sir Richard sat a little to one side in the great hall where the armour hung and listened as to three actors in the same play. The physician standing by the fire faintly shrugged his shoulders. The nobleman ridiculed and vituperated, the younger Puritan—for the elder was no match for his lordship—came back with verse and Scripture. Finally the first was reduced to "Insolent!" and a fine, foaming rage. Squire Carthew plucked his brother's sleeve. "No, no, Harry! Don't go so far—"

The younger Carthew made a stiff bow to his lordship and stood silent. He had answered, he knew, boldly and well, and it was much to him now to answer well and know it, to feel that he had been God Almighty's able champion. In subtle ways it tended to balance matters. It eased the sore and fearful feeling within, the anguished sensation that he was slipping, slipping, that the hand of Grace was trembling beneath him....

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The quarrel was too deep for any reconciliation. The old nobleman advanced no olive branches. Instead, with a "Fare you well, gentlemen! If this goes much further in England there'll be hangings and beheadings!" he rose from his cushioned chair and stalked from the hall. Sir Richard offered food and canary, but the two Carthews misliked his suavity, and the younger, at least, meant to keep no terms of any kind. They refused entertainment. They must needs at once return to Hawthorn.

"As you please, gentlemen!—I am glad to know that the sickness has not touched your neighbourhood."

The physician now came forward; they all stood about the great table in the hall. "You are lucky if it reaches you not," said the London doctor. "I understand that you are not more than six miles away. But in great cities I have seen it skip one parish and slay its hundreds all around. For some reason the folk just there were more resistive."

A servant entering with a message from the old nobleman, he turned aside to receive it.

"Nay," said the younger Carthew with sternness, "the plague falls where God would have it fall, and falls not where he is willing to spare. He saith to his Angel, 'Smite here!' or He saith, 'Pass me by this door!'—and where is the resistance of man that you prate of? As well might the worm resist the master of the vineyard's treading foot!"

Sir Richard looked at him curiously. "Of course! | | 145 of course! Poor worm!" There fell a silence, then the last speaker, unthinkingly, merely to make talk to the great door before which stood the visitors' horses, brought forward Aderhold's presence in the town. "Hawthorn hath played the Samaritan in one person—though, I believe, indeed, that he lives beyond the village. You've given a good leech. I saw him yesterday morning in the town, going from sick to sick."

The squire spoke. "You mean one Gilbert Aderhold? Yes, he is a leech. But Hawthorn sent him not—"

The London physician, returning at the moment, caught the name, "Gilbert Aderhold!—What! I've wondered more than once what became of the man—if, indeed, you speak of the same—"

"A tall, quiet man," said Sir Richard. "A thinker who has travelled—"

"It has a sound of him," said the physician. He somewhat despised the two country gentlemen, so he addressed himself exclusively to Sir Richard. As to what followed, it must be said that he spoke alike without malice and without forethought. Indifferentist himself, dulled by personal vanity and complacence of position, and with a knowledge at least of the tolerant-mindedness of the person to whom he spoke, he possibly took not into consciousness at all the very different nature of the two who might be listening, nor realized that the man of whom he spoke dwelled in their bailiwick and not in the town. At | | 146 any rate, he spoke on with vivacity. "A man of abilities who should have risen—studied in Paris—was for a time in the Duke of—'s household. Then what must he do but grow atheist and begin to write and teach! 'The God of Isaac and Jacob, Isaac and Jacob's idea of God. God the vast abstraction, like and differing with all times and peoples. The Bible not writ by the finger of God, but a book of Eastern wisdom with much that is gold, and much that is not.—No Fall of Man as therein told.—Salvation out of the depths of yourself and not by gift of another.—No soul can be bathed clean by another's blood.'—His book," said the physician, "was burned in an open place in Paris by the common hangman, and he himself lay a long while in prison and was hardly dealt with, nay, just escaped with life—which he might not have done but for the Duke of——, who got him forth from France with a letter to Sir Robert Cecil, and—seeing that I had brought his Grace up from an illness which he had when he was in England—one from his secretary to me. But naturally neither Sir Robert nor I could do aught—"

Sir Richard, his brow clouded, stopped him with a gesture. "You caught my interest and held me fast—but I should have checked you at once! Now—" He bit his lip, his brows drawn together with deep vexation.

The two men from Hawthorn were standing stone still. In the elder's face, at once stolid and peremp- | | 147 tory, was only single-minded amazement and wrath. What was this that Justice Carthew and all Hawthorn had been harbouring? A Jesuit spy would have been bad enough—but atheist!—But the younger was more complex, and in him a number of impulses were working. He left it to the elder to speak, who did so, explosively. "Atheist! No one hath thought well of the man of late—but atheist!—I will promise you, doctor—I will promise you, Sir Richard—"

"Nay," said Sir Richard, no longer with suavity, "what I would have you promise, that I know you will not!" He shook himself like a great dog. "Unhappy!"

The two Carthews rode down the castle hill and through the town where people went dully to and fro with Fear in company. There rose the pungent smell of burning wood, a church bell made a slow and measured clangour. They passed between tall, gloomy, jutting houses, passed the prison with the stocks and pillory, and the great church with the sculptured portal, wound down to the river, and crossed the arched bridge. Before them rolled the yet wintry country. Mounting a hill, they saw on the horizon a purple-grey line that was Hawthorn Forest.

The younger Carthew spoke. "It comes back to me.... That night at the Rose Tavern when he so suddenly appeared beside old Hard wick.... Master Anthony Mull, of Sack Hall, who was travelling | | 148 with us, appeared to recognize him and flew out against him.... Wait a moment!—his very words will come back. He said—' Black sorcerer and devil's friend!'"

That afternoon a serving-man brought to a house at the foot of the castle hill a letter to be passed on by a safe hand to the physician from Hawthorn. It came into Aderhold's hand as dusk was falling. He broke the seal and read by the light of one of the street fires. The letter—no lengthy one—came from his friend of the hawk and the silver box. It told him what the London physician had betrayed, though without malice, and to whom. It argued that it might be well to quit as quickly as possible this part of the country, or even to go forth for a time from England. It offered a purse and a horse; also, if it were wished for, a letter of commendation to the captain of a ship then lying at anchor at the nearest port, which captain, his own vessel being for longer voyages, would get him passage in some other ship touching at a Dutch port—"Amsterdam being today as safe as any place for a thinker—where no place is safe." The letter ended with "The younger Carthew will move, no fear! Then, my friend, move first."—An answer was to be left at the house at the foot of the hill.

Aderhold mechanically folded the letter and placed it in the breast of his doubtlet. The fire was burning in an almost deserted street. Beside it was a bench where an old tender of fires sat at times and | | 149 nodded in the warmth. He was not here now. Aderhold moved to the bench and sat down. He sat leaning forward, his hands clasped and hanging, his head bowed. After a time he sighed, straightened himself, and turning upon the bench looked about him. It was a gusty twilight with now and again a dash of rain. He looked up and down the solemn street. Some of the houses stood dark, those who had lived in them dead or fled. Behind the windows of others candles burned and shadows passed. This house he knew was stricken, and this and that. Here it was a child, here a young man or woman, here older folk. In more than one house there were many cases, a whole family stricken.... As he sat he heard the first cart of the night roll into the street, and a distant, toneless cry, "Bring out your dead!"

He rose and stood with a solemn and wide gesture of his hands. He waited a moment longer by the fire, then turned and went from this street into the next, where there lived behind his shop an old stationer and seller of books with whom he had made acquaintance. Here he begged pen and ink and paper, and when he had them, wrote, at no great length, an answer to the letter in his doublet. The next morning he left it at the house indicated, whence in due time it was taken by the serving-man and carried to Sir Richard at the castle. The letter spoke of strong gratitude, "but it befits not my calling to leave the town now."

The days lagged by in the stricken place. Then, | | 150 suddenly, the black finger shot out again and touched a house beyond the midway farm, so much nearer than it to Hawthorn Village.... A week of held breath and the finger went forward again. This time it touched a house in Hawthorn.

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