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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THE storm that had broken in the early afternoon regathered. The clouds hung low and black, the wind whistled, the rain came in gusts, now and again there was lightning and thunder. It was so dark in Heron's cottage, behind the deep, dripping eaves, that Joan moving to and fro seemed a shadow among shadows. The hearth glowed, but she held her hand from making a bright light with fresh faggots. Her mood was not for the dancing flame.

What it was for she knew not. She only knew that she was suited by the rain that dashed, by the bending fruit trees, striking the thatch with mossed boughs, the solemn roll of the thunder, the darkness and solitude. She paced the room, her arms lifted and crossed behind her head. At last a bit of unburned wood caught and sent up forked flames. Light and shadow danced about the walls. The grey and white cat came and walked with Joan, rubbing against her skirt.

The thunder rolled. Outside, the murk of the day thickened toward evening. A hand fell across the door, then pressed the latch. The door swung inward; there was a vision of a muffled figure, behind it wind-tossed trees and up-towering clouds lit by lightning.


"Who is it?" Joan cried sharply; then, as the man let drop the cloak he had been holding across his face, "Master Carthew!..."

The firelight, sinking, left only the smouldering coals and the room almost dark. Joan, moving swiftly across the room, seized fresh brands and threw them upon the old. A flame leaped up; the place was fairly light again. She turned upon him. "To come here—to come here—"

"He unclasped his great cloak and let it drop on the settle, took off his steeple-crowned hat and set it on the cloak. He stood out, dark-clothed, plain as Master Clement himself in what he wore, with shortcut hair, with handsome features, haggard, flushed, and working. "Do you know whence I have come? I have come from leading men to the Oak Grange where they took and bound that atheist there and carried him away to gaol. You'll walk no more with him in Hawthorn Forest."

Joan drew a heavy, painful breath. "I walked little with him in Hawthorn Forest. But when my father took the plague he came to him. He is a good man! Aye, I was in church and heard Master Clement—"

"Nay, I think that you walked much. But now you will walk no more."He came nearer to her. "Joan, put that Satan's servant from out your mind! Turn instead to one who sinneth truly and puts oftentimes in peril his immortal soul, but is


at least no misbeliever and denier of God's Word. Joan—Joan!

He tried to take her in his arms. She was strong and broke from him. Behind her was a shelf with some pewter jugs and dishes and small articles of use. She put up her arm and snatched from it a good and keen hunting-knife; then stood, breathing quickly, the firelight reddening the blade in her hand.

He gave a harsh and forced laugh. "Put it down, Joan! I did not mean to fright thee. I came to persuade—''

'Nay, I 'll keep it by me,"said Joan. "Persuade me to what? To feel love for you? That, Master Carthew, you cannot do! But you could make me feel gratitude—''

"If I took hat and cloak and went from out your door?"

"Aye, just."

"I cannot. . . . No man ever loved as I love you. . . . Here, this dusk, this Sabbath.—Think if I am in earnest. . . . Joan, Joan! If I lose for thee my immortal soul—''

She made a sound of anger and contempt. "Oh, thy little immortal soul! Be but mortal—and just!" The tears rose in her grey eyes. "See what you will do to me! Say that you were seen coming here—say that any of the times you have waited for me, waylaid me, met me against my will, you were watched—we were seen together. . . . You are a


man and a gentleman and a great man in this country. It will not harm you. But Joan Heron—but Joan Heron—it will harm her! It will provide her misery for all her days!"

Carthew struck his hand against the settle. "Is not all my name and future risked? I am not of the old England, nor of today's careless and idolatrous England. My world is the world of the new England, of the forces of the Lord mustering upon the straight and narrow path where there is no room for Satan's toys! And if I turn aside to Babylon and the flesh and its madness, and if my turning becomes known—Joan, Joan, you know not how great is my risk—even my worldly risk! As for the other—as for my risk of God's hatred and damnation—but I will not speak of that... Enough that I am here, and that to hold you consenting in my arms would even all out and make my lead gold and my torment bliss! Joan—if you would but love me and feel how the risk is outweighed! As for security, we can manage that. Many another pair has managed that. Today—here—with the wind and rain keeping all within doors.... I rode with the men some way toward the town, and then I left them, saying there were matters at home that needed. When they were out of sight, I turned through the fields and went up the stream that was all solitary, until I was over against the Oak Grange and the forest all around me. Then I turned and rode here through the forest, and fastened my horse in a hollow out there where


none may see him....Joan, it is like a desert all about us—or like Paradise garden. Joan, Joan, I love you! Joan, have pity!"

There came an access of lightning with thunder and a prolonged whistling of the wind. In the warring light and darkness of the room, Carthew, as though the final spring of restraint had snapped, came close to her, put his arms about her. The lightning blazed again, and by it both saw with distinctness a man and woman standing without, their faces close to the window. In the darkness after the flash, they left it and came on to the cottage door, but as yet did not knock. Within the room, Carthew, sobered, the colour ebbing from his face, only one consideration pouring in upon his mind, released Joan and caught from the settle hat and cloak. There was a second outward-opening door, giving upon the bit of garden behind the cottage, leading in its turn to the forest. He looked toward it. She nodded, "Yes, yes, go!" He came close to her, moving noiselessly and speaking low, "Do you think they saw—saw at all?"

She shook her head. "I do not know."

"It was too dusk within. I do not think they saw. Keep counsel, Joan, for thy own sake if not for mine."

The two without knocked. Carthew crossed the floor without sound, opened the forest-facing door, and with a gesture of farewell vanished. There was a continuous noise of wind and rain; what daylight


was left and the lightning were all without; it might truly be doubted if one glancing through the window could either see or hear, the interior was so dusky, the voice of wind and wet so continuing. Joan, with a long, shuddering sigh, put down the hunting-knife, and going to the door opened it. The two who stood there were Will the smith's son and his mother. They had, it seemed, the weather clearing, walked to see the forester's people; then, the clouds returning, they had taken their leave to hurry home. But the storm had overtaken them—and they had thought to take refuge until the rain lessened in Heron's cottage. But they did not know—they thought they had better go on.

"Come in Come in and warm and dry yourselves," said Joan.

They came in hesitatingly. They looked around them, confused and doubtful. They sat on the settle by the fire and stared at the grey and white cat. Will was trembling, and it could not be from the wet and chill, for he was used to that.

His mother was of stouter mental make. "Were you alone, Joan? It seemed to us there was somebody else—"

"Why, who else," asked Joan, "could there have been?" She looked around her. "The shadows moving along the walls do look like people."

"It looked," said Will, in a strange voice, "as though you and a shadow were locked and moving together. It looked like a tall black man." He


stared at the fire and at the grey and white cat. A fine, bead-like moisture that was not rain clung to his brow, beneath his yellow elf locks.

"No, no black man," said Joan. "I myself fancy all kinds of things in a storm."

Her woman guest was silent. She sat with bead-like blue eyes now on Joan, now upon the kitchen from wall to wall. But Will's perturbation remained. The events of the day, North-End Farm talk and the tinker's talk, the atmosphere of heat and storm, church and the denunciation of his old master's kinsman, the physician with whom at the Oak Grange he had himself been in daily contact, the talk at the forester's which had been of the marvellous, indeed, and the evident power of Satan; afterwards the dark wood, the lightning, rain, and thunder, and then the momentary spectral vision through the window, which how, it seemed, was naught—all wrought powerfully upon his unstable imagination. There flowed into his mind his long-ago adventure with the wolf that ran across the snow-field, and was trapped that night but never found . . . but old Marget Primrose was found with her ankle cut. The remembrance dragged with it another—he was again with that same physician sitting his horse before the portal of the great church in the town—the carvings in the stone struck with almost material force back into his mind that was edged already with panic. Witches and devils.... And the tinker's talk of how Scotland was beset,


and Satan buying women, old and young....He had always thought of witches being old like Marget Primrose or like Mother Spuraway—but, of course, they could be young....The forester's wife, that afternoon, had said something—it hummed back through his head. Her beehives were bewitched by Joan Heron's beehives....

His mind was tinder to every superstitious spark. With a whistling breath and a shuffling of the feet, he rose from the settle. "We're dry and warm now, mother.—Let's be getting home."

His mother, it seemed, was ready. Her parting with Joan was somewhat tight-lipped and stony. "Seeing that you are alone now in the world 't is a pity you ever had to leave living by the town and the castle! There were fine strange doings there that you miss, no doubt—"

The two went out into the declining day. The rain had ceased, but the wind blew hard, driving vast iron-grey clouds across the sky. However, since the thunder had rolled away, one could talk. As soon as the two were out of the cottage gate and upon the serpentine green path, wet beneath the wet trees, they began to talk.

"It was something," said Will; "and then when we got within, it was nothing ....Mother!"

"Aye, aye," said his mother. "It was n't to be seen plain. But she was not by herself."

"Mother... the tinker saith that the Scotch witches all have familiars. A man or a woman or


sometimes children see such and such an one walking or talking with a tall black man, but when they get close there is only, maybe, a dog, or a cat, or sometimes a frog or a mouse.... But the witch-prickers always find the witch's mark where the Devil that is her familiar sucks.... And then the witch confesses and tells how the Devil is now tall and black like himself and now shrinks into the small beast, and how by his power she can herself change her shape."—Will shivered and his eyes glanced fearfully about. "Mother, do you think that there was something evil there?"

His mother looked steadily before her with beady blue eyes. "I don't know what I think. I think there was somebody or something there that she did n't want seen or known about—but where it went, or he went.... Don't you think any more that you might marry her."

Back in Heron's cottage Joan sat crouched before the fire. She fed it now constantly with wood so as to make the whole room light. A determination was taking form in her mind. Tomorrow she would walk to the town, and climb the castle hill, and ask for Mistress Borrow at the castle. The old housekeeper had called her a pagan, but natheless she had been fond of Joan and Joan of her.... Now to go to the castle, and find her in the cheerful housekeeper's room and to sit on the floor beside her with head, maybe, in her lap, and free a burdened heart and mind and ask counsel.... She would do it. She


would start early—at sunrise. The vigour of her purpose lightened her heart; she rose to her feet, and going to the window, looked out. It was quite dark. The storm had died away, but the sky was filled with torn and hurrying clouds. Now hidden, now silvering cloud and earth, a half-moon hurried too. Joan stood gazing, her face lifted. She thought of her father. At last she raised her arm, closed the casement, and drew across it its linen curtain. From the cupboard she took a candlestick and candle and lighted the latter with a splinter from the hearth. She set it upon the table, and going to the main door turned the large key in the lock. This done, she moved across the kitchen floor to the small door giving upon the back. The key was lost of this, but there was a heavy bar. She had lifted this to slip it into place when the door, pushing against her, opened from without. Carthew reentered the room.

Joan uttered a cry less of fright than of sudden and great anger. "Beware," she cried, "that I do not kill you yet! Begone from this place!"

He shook his head. "No. I have watched all away. Who comes, after curfew, of a wet and wild night, to your cottage? No good folk of this region, I am sure. So we're alone now, Joan, at last!"

He made a movement past her. She saw what he was after, and, lithe and quick herself, she was there first. She had the knife again.... They stood facing each other in the lit room, and Joan spoke.

"Thou hypocrite!" she said; "thou pillar of


Hawthorn Church and dependence of God on high and Master Clement! Thou hope of England! Thou searcher-out of iniquity and punisher of wrong-doing! Thou perceiver of high things and the meaning of the world! Thou judge and master in thy own conceit!—Thou plain and beast-like man, who wantest but one thing and knows not love, but lust—

He caught her in his arms. He was strong, but so was she. They struggled, swaying, their shadows, in firelight and candlelight, towering above them. They breathed hard—they uttered broken words, ejaculations. He was in the grasp of the brute past; she struggled with the energy of despair and hatred. She felt that he gained. Need taught her cunning. She seemed to give in his clasp, then, in the moment when he was deceived, she gathered all her strength, tore her arm free, and struck with the hunting-knife.

The blade entered his side. She drew it out, en-crimsoned. They fell apart, Carthew reeling against the wall. The colour ebbed from his face. He felt the bleeding, and thrusting a scarf within his doublet, strove to stanch it. As he leaned there, he kept his eyes upon her. But with the suddenness of the lightning their expression had changed. Wrath and defeat and shame were written in them; desire still, but mixed now with something baleful, with something not unlike hate. The bleeding continued. He felt a singing in his ears and a mist before his eyes.


With the ice of the new mood came a sense of the peril of his position. Did he swoon here from loss of blood—grow so weak that he could not get away—be found here when day came—. The scandal flared out in letters of fire before him. He saw the face of Master Clement, and the faces of other and more powerful men of the faction, religious and political, with which he was becoming strongly identified.... He must get away—get home—framing some story as he went. His horse was near—the streaming blood seemed less.

Joan stood like a dart, in her face blended relief and horror. They stared each at the other.

"Do you remember," said Carthew in a hollow voice, "in the forest there, I said that love might turn to hate? Beware lest it has turned!"

"You may hate me," said Joan. "You never loved me."

He took his eyes from her and moving haltingly to the door opened it. His horse was close outside, fastened within the small enclosure. Through the dark oblong, by the light of the half-moon, she saw him mount. He gathered up the reins, he held also by the horse's mane. His face looked back at her for a moment, a ghastly, an enemy's face. Then there was only the mournful night and Heron's cottage, thatch-roofed, sunk among blossoming fruit trees from which the raindrops dripped, dripped.

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