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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TOWN and village and all the country roundabout were growing clean of the plague. Day by day the evil lessened, the sickness stole away. It left its graves, and among those whose loss was personal its mood of grief. At large there was still a kind of sullen fear, a tension of the nerves, a readiness to attend to any cry of "Wolf!" The wolf might come no more in the guise of the plague, but there were other damages and terrors. All Hawthorn region was in a mood to discover them.

It came Sunday. The danger, at least, of congregating together seemed to have rolled away. Comfort remained, comfort of the crowd, of feeling people warm about you, gloomy comfort of "Eh, sirs!" and shakings of the head. Hawthorn, village and neighbourhood, flocked to church. Going, the people drew into clusters. The North-End Farm folk had a large cluster, and there the shaking of the head was over the possessed boy. But the widow whose cow was dead and the waggoner whose horses were lamed had their groups, too, and the largest group of all came compactly from the lower end of the village, past the green and the pond and the stocks and the Sabbath-closed ale- | | 166 house, with the tinker from Scotland talking in the midst of it.

Dark stone, gaunt and ancient, rather small than large, Hawthorn Church rose among yew trees. Within was barer than without. What of antique carving could be broken away was broken away, what could be whitewashed was whitewashed, what of austerity could be injected was injected. The Act of Uniformity loomed over England like a writing in the sky; there must be and was use of the book of Common Prayer. But parishes minded like Hawthorn used it with all possible reserves. Where matters could be pared they were pared to the quick; all exfoliation was done away with. As far as was possible in an England where Presbyterianism yet sat in the shadow of the Star Chamber and the Independents had not arisen, idolatrousness was excluded. Only the sermon was not pared. Sunday by Sunday minister and people indemnified themselves with the sermon.—You could not speak against the King; except in metaphor you could not speak against the Apostolic Succession; there were a number of things you could not speak against unless you wished to face gaol or pillory or worse. Because of this the things that you could speak against were handled with an added violence. The common outer foe received the cudgellings you could not bestow within the house. The Devil was mightily dealt with in pulpits such as this of Hawthorn, the Devil and his ministers. The Devil was invisible; even the | | 167 most materializing mind did not often get a glimpse of him, though such a thing was possible and had of course happened: witness Martin Luther and others. But his ministers—his ministers! They were many and palpable. . . .

Hawthorn Church was filled. They sat very still, men and women and children. They were peasants and yeomen, small tradespeople, a very few of the clerkly caste, one or two families of gentry. The only great enclosed pew was that belonging by prescription to Carthew House. The squire, the squire's wife, his young son, and the squire's brother sat there, where the force of the sermon could reach them first. Quite at the back of the church sat Gilbert Aderhold, a quiet, dark figure beside an old, smocked farmer. Joan sat where she had been wont to sit with her father, halfway down the church, just in front of Alison Inch and her mother. It was a dark day, the air hot, heavy, and oppressive, drawing to a storm.

Master Thomas Clement came into the pulpit wearing a black gown. He opened his Geneva Bible and laid it straight before him. He turned the hourglass, then lifting his hands to the lowering sky he smote them together, and in a loud, solemn and echoing voice read from the book before him,"If there arise among you a prophet or a dreamer of dreams, and giveth thee a sign or a wonder. And the sign or the wonder come to pass whereof he spake to thee, saying, Let us go after other gods, that thou hast | | 168 not known, and let us serve them. . . . That prophet or that dreamer of dreams shall be put to death; because he hath spoken to turn you away from the Lord your God. . . . And all Israel shall hear and fear and shall do no more any such wickedness as this is among you. ..."

". . . There shall not be found among you any one that . . . useth divination, or an observer of times, or an enchanter, or a witch, or a consulter with familiar spirits, or a wizard, or a necromancer."

He ceased to read, and with another gesture of his long, thin hands, began to preach. He had a peculiar power and calibre had Master Thomas Clement. He stood in his black gown, a small man with a pale face; then his dire vision came upon him and it was as though his form gained height and dilated. He burned like a flame, a wind-tossed flame, burningblue. When he spoke his words came with a rushing weight. His figure bent toward the people, his lean hands quivered above his head, gesturing against the dark concave of the roof. The roof might have been an open, stormy sky, the pulpit a rock upon some plain of assemblage, the preacher a gaunt, half-clad Israelite shrilling out to the Hebrew multitude the rede of their lawgivers. Thou shalt not suffer doubt to live! Thou shalt endure no speech of more or other paths than this one. He that differeth, he shall die!

But it was not Sinai and some thousands of years ago and an Asiatic tribe struggling back from Egypt to some freehold of its own, or Asiatic lawgivers | | 169 building a careful theocracy. It was Europe,—it was England and the seventeenth century,—and still men like this stood in fiery sincerity and became mouthpieces for that people and its history and its laws. The order to Judah and Simeon and Levi rolled through the ages like never-cooling lava, withering and whelming vineyards of thought.Thou shall not suffer doubt to live. He that differeth, he shall die!—And a thousand thousand pale shapes might rise to the inner eye and speak to the inner ear."We died."

Aderhold sat still, far back in Hawthorn Church. In his own mind he saw that he was on the edge of the abyss. He doubted much if he would escape. . . . The old farmer sitting, blue-smocked, beside him, his watery eyes fixed upon the minister, broke now and again into a mutter of repetition and comment. "Aye, aye! The misbeliever to perish for idolatry. . . . Of course he blasphemes—the misbeliever blasphemes. . . . Aye, aye! 'Why,' and ' Wherefore,' the Devil's own syllables. . . . Aye, aye! Unbelief and sorcery go together. . . . Aye, now we 're at fire in this world and everlasting, lasting fire to come!"

The preacher had before him a people who had come through a narrow strait and a valley of the shadow, gathered together in a mood of strained nerves, of twitches and starts aside, of a readiness to take panic. The day was dark with heat and oppression, a sense of hush before tempest. It was a day on | | 170 which it was easy to awaken emotion. The faces of the people showed pale in the dusk, breathing became laboured. At last it grew that men and women looked aside with something like a shudder and a sigh in the dimness. It was as though they looked to see a serpent's head, fanged and crowned, lifting itself in the gloom from monstrous coils. Aderhold saw the slow turning of eyes in his direction.

He thought swiftly. He had served many in this congregation. Since, in the winter-time, his eyes had been opened, he knew of the drifting talk of his hoarding gold, of his practising alchemy there in the dark Oak Grange, alchemy, and perhaps worse. Even after his return from the plague-stricken town, even in his going through Hawthorn countryside from house to house where there were sick, helping, serving, even then he had seen doubtful looks, had known his aid taken hurriedly, as it were secretly and grudgingly. But all had not done so. There had been those too simple and too suffering and sorrowful for that, and there had been those whose minds seemed not to have taken the dye. There were some in this church of whom, in the years he had dwelt in this country, he had grown fond; folk that of their own bent felt for him liking and kindness. . . . But he did not deceive himself. He knew of none that would stand before this parching and withering wind. Heretofore the talk might have been idle talk, but now it was evident that Master Clement had at his shaken finger-ends the history in France | | 171 of Gilbert Aderhold. Friends! By what multitude of written words, of hearsay and legend—by what considerable amount of personal observation did he know how friends fell away from the denounced dreamer of dreams! . . . Poor friends! He felt no rise of bitterness against them. They would not have fallen away in physical battle; they would have stood many a strain, perhaps all but this. This was not to cow the blood; it was to cow mind and the immortal spirit. To face for a friend a wolf, a lion, or an earthly angered King, that was well!—but to face for a friend an angered God, to save him not from hell-fire and to be yourself whelmed, remediless, for eternity! Few there were who could inwardly frame the question, "Is He angered?" or "What is He that can be so angered?" or "You who would silence this man with the silence of death, are you beyond doubt the spokesmen of God and Eternity? Are you, after all, God's Executioners?" But they said that they were, and the human mind was clay to believe. . . . Aderhold looked over the church and thought he saw none who would not be terrified aside.

Well! he asked those questions and other questions. Mind and moral nature rose in him and stood. But he knew that his body would betray him if it could. Highly strung, very sensitive to pain, he possessed an imagination and memory vivid to paint or to bring back all manner of pangs and shrinkings of the earthly frame. No detail of any Calvary but in | | 172 some wise he knew and feared it. He felt the cold sweat dew his temples and break out upon the backs of his hands. He felt the nausea that numbed and withered the brain and brought the longing for death. . . .

Not in the beginning, the middle, or the ending of his white-heated discourse did the minister call the name of Gilbert Aderhold or say the Oak Grange. The invective, the "Lo, this is he that troubleth Israel!" only drew in circles, closer, closer, until there was no one there who did not know who was meant. The tremendous accusation was of Atheism, but in and out there tolled like a lesser bell, Sorcery! Sorcery! The withdrawing light, the hot, small, vagrant breaths of air, announcers of the onward rolling storm, the darkened hollow of the building with the whitewashed walls glimmering pale, the faces lifted from the benches, the square Hall pew, the high pulpit and the black sounding-board and the black figure with the lifted arms and the death-like shaken hands, and in the back of the church, all knew, even if they could not see him, the man who had made pact with the Devil. ... A woman fainted; a child began a frightened, whimpering crying. The sands had quite run out from the upper half of the hourglass. . . .

Aderhold, close to the door, was the first of the congregation to step from the church into the open air. It would seem that those near him held back, so as to let the fearful thing forth and out. The | | 173 churchyard path stretched bare before him, between the yews to the mossed gate, and so forth from the immediate pale. There came as yet no challenge or molestation. He had looked for this; when all had risen and he with them, it had been with an inward bracing to meet at the door a writ of arrest. He looked to see the Hawthorn constable. But he was not at the door, or out upon the path, or at the gate. . . . The storm was at hand, with clouds heavy and dark as the yew trees and with a mutter of thunder. As he reached the village street, raindrops touched his face. Behind him the churchyard was astir with people, murmuring and dark. He wrapped his cloak about him, pulled his hat down against the rain, and faced homeward. Almost immediately, the church being at the village end, the cloud-shadowed country was about him.

He walked rapidly for half a mile, then halted and stood in the wind and rain, trying to think it out. It occurred to him that he might turn back through the fields and passing the village come out on the highway and strike southward to the town and the castle. He knew not if his friend of the hawk were yet at the castle. And if he were not?—and if he were? . . .

There was that at the Oak Grange which must be considered. His book—there in the quiet room behind the cupboard's oaken door, all his writing lying there—that which he was trying to put down. It turned him decisively from the town and the bare chance of reaching help. His book was his lover and | | 174 playmate and child. He put himself into motion again and went on toward the Grange, beneath the tempestuous sky, through the wind and the rain. . . . When he came within Hawthorn Forest there arrived a sudden lull. The oaks stood still around him, the raindrops fringing branch and twig and unfolding tufts of velvet leaves. Overhead the clouds drove apart, there came a gleam of intensest blue. As he moved through the forest it took on an ineffable beauty. When he came to the edge and to the stream murmuring over its pebbly strand there was a great rainbow. He crossed the footbridge and went on by the fairy oak.

Within the still old house was none but himself. Dorothy and the boy, her nephew, had been there in Hawthorn Church. They would come on but slowly; indeed, they might have stopped at a cousin's on the way; indeed, he knew not if, terrified and at a loss, they would come back to the Grange at all. They might, perhaps, have waited to beseech the minister's and the squire's protection and advice. There was a fire in the kitchen. Aderhold, spreading his cloak to dry, knelt upon the hearth, crouched together, bathed by the good warmth. But even while the light and comfort played about him there came into his mind, suddenly, with sickening strength, a thing that he had witnessed in his childhood, here in England. Again he saw a woman burning at a stake. ... He shuddered violently, rose and left the room.

| | 175

Upstairs he unlocked the cupboard and took from it a heap of closely covered manuscript. It rested upon the table before him ... He stood for some moments with a bowed head; presently his hand stole to the leaves and caressed them. He knew what he should do; he should take the whole down to the kitchen and lay it in the fire. Since the warning of the man with the hawk he had known that that was what should be done. The knowledge had lain upon his heart at night. " I will do it tomorrow," and again, " I will do it tomorrow." The only other thing was to hide it in some deep and careful place, whence, if ever there came escape and security, he might recover it, or where, long years after he was dead, men might find it and read it. He had thought of digging beneath the fairy oak—but the fire, he knew, was the safest. ... He gathered all together and with it in his hands went downstairs. He thought that he had decided upon the fire, but going, he had a vision of a mattock and spade resting behind an outhouse door. Now would be the time to dig, now at once! As his foot touched the oak flooring of the hall there sounded a heavy knock upon the door. It was not locked or barred; even as he stood the one uncertain instant, it swung inward to admit the men who had followed him from Hawthorn.

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