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

Table of Contents

<< chapter 14 chapter 32 >>

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AT sunrise she shut the cottage door behind her, locked it, and put the key in a hiding-place under the eaves, then went down the path between the daffodils and out of the little gate. She had a basket upon her arm and within it in a blue jar a honeycomb for a gift to Mistress Borrow. It was a morning fresh and fragrant, the grass diamonded with last night's rain, the tree-tops veiled with mist, distant cocks crowing. When she came upon the road the sun was drinking up the mist; it was going to be a beautiful day.

She walked for some distance toward the village, but at a point where she saw Carthew House among the trees and the church yews were growing large before her, she turned into a path that would take her through the fields and bring her out upon the highway with the village left behind. She did not wish to go through the village, she did not wish to pass Alison Inch's door, she did not wish to come near to Carthew House.

She walked between the springing grain, and through a copse where a thrush was singing, and by a stream that was the same that murmured past the Oak Grange, and so at last came back to the high-


way. She looked back. The village roofs, the church tower, rested dark against the blue sky; light curls of smoke were rising and a great bird sailed overhead.

Before her, over hill and dale, ran the road to the town. She shifted her basket to the other arm and walked on in the golden morning. Now she was by nature courageous, and by nature also a lover of light and air, of form and colour, of diverse motion and the throb of life. In her soul the whole round earth mirrored itself as alive, and, despite black moods and fits of madness, as dominantly good and fair. What of sorrow, gloom, and care had of late clung about her, what of terror and horror the happening of the evening before had left with her, slowly lessened, grew diaphanous in the sunlight and open country. The road began to entertain her, and there came sweet wafted memories of the castle wood, of how fondly she and her father and uncle had lived together and understood one another and liked life, and of all the pleasant doings when the great family were at the castle. Music hummed in her ears again, the figures of the masque filed across the green sward.

In the fresh morning there was more or less meeting and passing on the road. A shepherd with a flock of sheep overtook her, and she stood under an elm to let them by. The shepherd whistled clearly, the sheep kept up their plaintive crying, pushing and jostling with their woolly bodies, their feet mak-


ing a small pattering sound. "To market! To market!" said the shepherd. "Are you for the market, too, pretty maid?" Farther on she overtook in her turn two or three children going on some errand and walked with them awhile. They wanted to know what was in her basket and she opened the jar and showed them the bright honeycomb, then, breaking clean skewers from a wayside hazel, dipped them in the liquid gold and gave each child a taste. They left her at a lane mouth, and she walked for a little way with two women who were carrying between them an old tavern sign painted with a sheaf of wheat and a giant bunch of grapes. When she had left these two behind and had gone some distance upon a bare, sunny road, she saw before her like a picture the river and the bridge, the climbing town and the castle. She could make out the Black Tower among the trees.

The town was quit of the plague. To the knowing there would be still visible a gloom about the place, a trailing shadow of remembered fear and loss. People would be missed from the streets, vacant houses and shops remarked. Street cries and sounds would come more sombrely and the sunshine fall less warmly. But to the stranger it would seem a town as usual. For Joan, it was not so gay and rich as once it had been, because she that looked on it was not so care-free as once she had been. But still it was to her the great town, so different from Hawthorn, so jewelled with pleasant memories. . . .


She passed the vintner's house and was glad to see that it was open and cheerful, and that therefore he had not died of the plague. At length she came to climb the castle hill, and with her heart beating fast to cross the pleasaunce and go around to a certain small door of the offices through which she would soonest gain admittance to Mistress Borrow. The sky was so blue, the grass, the flowers, the budding trees were so fair, mavis and lark and robin sang so shrill and sweet, that earth and heaven once more assumed for Joan a mother aspect. Warm, not unhappy, tears came to her eyes. She shook them back and went on over daisies and violets. She had not slept last night and the miles were long between her and Heron's cottage. She felt light-headed with the assurance of comfort and counsel, the sense that the black cloud that had gathered about her so strangely, so almost she knew not how, would now begin to melt away.

Mistress Borrow was not at the castle. Her sister, thirty miles away, was dying of a dropsy, and the housekeeper had been given leave to go to her. She had gone last week—she might be away a month.... The family were not thereߞthey had gone at the first alarm of the plague. Sir Richard had stayed through it and my lord the countess's father, had stopped for a week, but they, too, were now away. ... It was a civil-spoken girl who told her all this, a new maidservant who had no knowledge of Joan. There were men and women servitors whom


she remembered and who would remember her, but when the girl asked if, Mistress Borrow being away, she could do her errand to any one else, she shook her head. "You look dazed," said the maid. "Better come in and sit awhile." But no, said Joan, she must be getting home. So she thanked the girl, and they said good-morning to each other, and she left the little door and the flagged courtyard, and coming out under an archway found herself again upon the flower-starred grass, with the shadows of the trees showing two hours from noon. To the right stretched the castle wood, and she would go through it and see again the huntsman's house.

It rose among the trees before her, a comfortable, friendly, low, deep-windowed place. She would not go very near; she did not know the people who had it now, and truly she felt dazed and beaten and did not wish questioning or talk. She found an old, familiar oak with huge and knotted roots rising amid bracken, and here she sank down and lay with her head upon her arm and her eyes upon the place where in all her life she had been happiest. An old hound came and snuffed about her, a redbreast watched her from a bough. She lay for some time, resting, not thinking but dreaming back. At last she rose, settled the basket upon her arm, looked long at the huntsman's house, then turned away, and leaving the wood began to descend the castle hill.

When she passed through the high street of the town the church bells were ringing. She turned out


of the brighter street into one that sloped to the river, and here she came upon an open place and the prison tall and dark. She stopped short, standing in the shadow of a bit of wall. It was easy for one's own cares to make one forget, and she had forgotten Aderhold. But he would be here—there was no real gaol in Hawthorn itself, though offenders might be locked for a time in a dungeon-like room beneath the sexton's house. But a learned man and a property-owner and a man accused of the greatest crime of all, which was to deny the real existence and power of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob,—such an one would be brought here. They would have haled Master Aderhold here last night.... She stood and gazed at the frowning mass. The windows were few and far apart and small and closely barred. Today that was so sunshiny bright would be stifling and black enough in there. She wished that she could send in the light and air.

A man, coming, too, from the high street with his course shaped for Hawthorn Village, joined her where she stood. He was a wiry, crooked-shouldered, grizzle-headed, poorly clad person with a face of some knavery, cunning, and wildness. Over his shoulder, strung together with leather thongs, hung some small pots and pans, and in a leather pouch he seemed to carry tools and bits of metal. Joan recognized him for the tinker, who, after wandering far and wide, came back, at long intervals, to a hut just this side of Hawthorn. It appeared that on his part


he remembered her face. "From Heron's cottage, mistress?—near the Oak Grange." He seemed to cast a glance upon the prison, but then he looked at her grey eyes and her face, paler today than was its wont, and asked if she had walked from home. She said yes, she had been to see the housekeeper at the castle—but she was not there. "Was she walking back to Hawthorn?" Yes, she said, and began to move across the prison square. He moved with her. "I walked from Hawthorn myself this morning. Matters to buy for my trade! Shall stop here at the Boar's Head before I take the road back." To her content he left her, and she went on by the great church and down the hill to the arched bridge. But when she had crossed it, and when the river behind her lay thin like a silver crescent, she found him again at her side.

It was hot midday and the road bare of folk. She did not wish a travelling companion and would have liked to tell him so, but she was somehow cowed this noon, weary and listless where on the sunrise road she had been hopeful. She let him walk beside her, a freakish figure, vowed to mischief. Immediately he began to talk about the plague. Her father had died?—"Yes."—He had been told so. Many people had died—;many people in the town, and not so many, but enough in Hawthorn and roundabout. Once he saw the plague. He was lying in the heather on a hillside near a town that had it. Dark was coming. Then a great figure of a woman


black and purple, with a veil all over, rose straight up above the roofs and chimneys. She lifted her arms and took the veil from her head, and it was crowned with shiny gold and she was the Plague—;and she floated in the sky and took her veil and drew it behind her, and every roof it touched they were going to die in that house.—Yes, tinkers saw strange things, wandering over the country. There were a many strange things, were n't there? The plague left the country very fearful—;and there was another strange thing, Fear! It took a man and knocked the heart out of him—but then to make up, it gave him more eyes and ears than he 'd ever had before!

He looked at her aslant. "Did you ever see the Devil?"


"Then you aren't fearful," said the tinker. "Fearful folk can see him plain."

He kept silence for a little, his eyes upon a cloud of butterflies fluttering before them over a muddy place in the road, then again turned upon Joan his curious, half-squinting look. "Of course there 've been men who were n't afraid and yet have seen him. Men who were great enemies to him, and pushing him hard, and he so angry and despairing that he shows himself, tail, claws, and all! Tall Bible men and great men like Doctor Martin Luther who threw his ink-well at him. And a lot of other men—mass-priests, and bishops, and marprelates, all


the same. It's to their honour to have seen him, for so the people see how the Devil must hate them to come himself to beard them, and what a strong enemy they are to him, which means, of course, that the King of Heaven must hold them in high regard.—Even poor wights may sometimes give a good blow—just as a camp-follower might save an army or a scullion a palace! I 'm not saying that I did n't get a glint of his horns myself once on Little Heath, between two furze bushes!"

Joan was not talkative. She walked steadily on, but she was tired, and her mind now seemed to drowse, and now, rousing itself, strayed far from the other's talk.

The tinker was piqued by her inattention. "And then witches and warlocks see him.—women see him," he said with spite. "And not because they're his enemies neither! Ten women know him, hair and hoof, to one man. . . . For why? They knew him first, as the good Book tells us, and became his gossips in Eden Garden. So 't is that still when things go wrong 't is woman that gives them the shog. The Devil gives her the apple still, and she takes it and shakes out harm on mankind—which is why we've got a leave to keep her somewhat down! That's woman in ordinary—and then you come to witches—"

Joan's eyelids twitched.

He saw that she attended. "Witches! First they begin by having commerce with elves and fays,


green men, and such. They get into fairy hills and eat and drink there, and they dance in the moon-light around trees in the wood. But the elves are the Devil's cousins, and he's always on hand, and some night he comes smirking up, dressed now this way and now that. So the woman drops a curtsy, and he puts out his hand and gives her something, just as he did in Eden Garden. She takes it, and that seals her both sides of the Judgement Day! Pay for pay! Blood gives him strength, and so he sucks from a little place he makes upon her body—that's the witch mark that can't be made to feel pain, and that's why we strip and prick witches to find their mark, which is better proof even than their confessing! Now she's the Devil's servant and leman forever, and begins to work evil and practise the Black Art. He shows her how to fly through the air and change herself into all manner of shapes. Then she goes to his Sabbat and learns to know other witches and maybe a wizard or two, though there aren't so many wizards. They're mostly witches and demons. If you look overhead at night you can sometimes see a scud of them flying between you and the moon. Then begin the tempests of hail and thunder and lightning, and the ships that are sunk at sea, and the murrain in the cattle, and the corn blighted and ricks burned and beasts lamed and children possessed and gear taken and sickness come—''

He stopped to cough and also to observe if she


were listening. She was listening. He was saying nothing that she had not heard before. They were commonplaces alike of pulpit and doorstep. But it had all been like figures seen afar off and upon another road. Now she had come to a place in life where, bewildered, she found them about her. Joan was conscious that life was becoming like an evil dream. Just as in a dream a hundred inconsequences might form the strongest net, entangling you, with-holding you from some longed-for escape, so now, awake, a hundred things so little in themselves—She never said to herself that there was a net weaving about her; the mind, struck and bewildered, could not yet give things a name, perhaps would not if it could. She only saw the gold and warmth going for her steadily out of the sunshine—and knew not how it came that they were going nor how to stop that departure. Now she said dully, " I do not believe all that," and then saw immediately that it was a mistake for any one to say that.

The tinker again looked aslant. "Most of your witches are old women. At their Sabbats you 'll see a hundred withered gammers, dancing and leaping around a fire with the Devil sitting in the midst, and all sing-songing a charm and brewing in a kettle a drink with which to freeze men's blood! But each crew hath always one young witch that they call the maiden. A young and well-looking wench with red lips and she calls the dance. They were burning such an one where I was a while ago in Scotland.


She cried out, ' I be no witch! I be no witch!' to the end. But they sang and prayed her down and she burned on."

Joan moistened her lips. "Why did they think she was—"

"Ah," said the tinker, "there was a young laird she had bewitched! He peaked and pined and syne he cried out that a dirk was always turning in his side. So they found, beneath the hearth in her cot, a figure of wax with a rusted nail set in its side, and as the wax melted away, so was he to pine. And there were other tokens and matters proved on her. Beside, when they tried her in the loch she never sank at all.convicta et combusta—which is what they write in witch cases upon the court book."

By now they were much advanced upon the Haw-thorn road. The day was warm, the air moist and languid. Joan felt deadly tired. There swam in her mind a desire to be away, away—to find a door from this earth that was growing drear and ugly. She moved in silence, her grey eyes wide and fixed. The tinker, his throat dry with talking, drew in front of him one of the pans which he carried and in lieu of further speech drummed upon it as he walked. Presently a cart came up behind them, empty but for a few trusses of hay, and the carter known to them both, being Cecily Lukin's brother.

"Hey!" said the tinker. "Give me a lift!"

The cart stopped."Get in!" said Lukin. He stared at Joan.


The tinker, swinging himself up, spoke with a grin. "There's room for you too—''

Joan shook her head. She made no halting, but went on by in her greyish gown and wide hat with her basket on her arm.

The carter flicked his horse, the cart passed her, left her behind, in a few minutes disappeared around a bend of the road. To the last the two men stared back at her; she seemed to hear Lukin's slow, clownish voice repeating Cecily's tattle—Cecily's and Alison's.

Hawthorn Village grew plain before her: thatched cottages, the trees upon the green, the church yews and the church tower—there flashed upon her again yesterday at church, and Master Aderhold in prison. He was a good man; despite what the minister had said, she believed that with passion—he was a good man. It had not kept them from haling him to prison. What would they do to him, what? . . . She came to the path that would spare her going through the village and turned into it from the highway. It led her by the stream and through the fields and out upon Hawthorn Forest road. Heron's cottage was in sight when she met Goodman Cole, walking to the village.

He looked at her oddly. "Good-day, Joan."

"Good-day, goodman."

"Where have you been?"

"I walked to the castle to see Mistress Borrow. But she was not there."


Goodman Cole propped himself upon his stick, full in her way in the sunny road. "We are seeing strange doings in Hawthorn Parish! Aye, strange doings we are seeing! Have you heard about Master Harry Carthew?"

"No.—Heard what?"

"Then I'll tell you," said the old man. "Yesterday afternoon Master Carthew rode a part of the way with the men who were taking the leech to the town.—And there," said Goodman Cole, "is another strange thing! That we could like an atheist well enough, and think him skilled and kindly, and all the time he was mankind's deadliest foe! 'T was the Devil sure that blinded us!—Well, as I was telling you, Master Carthew rode a part of the way. Then, having seen them well started, he turns his horse, meaning to go first to Master Clement's to consult about having a commission named, before the next assize, to look into a many things that have happened about Hawthorn, some in connection with the leech and some by themselves—and then to ride from the minister's home to Carthew House. It was stormy as we know, the kind of hot and dark storm they say witches brew. He was riding, looking straight before him, and thinking what a darkness like the darkness of the sky was over England, when what does his horse do but start aside and begin to rear and plunge—and yet there was nothing there! It lightened, and the road on all sides lay bare. And yet, in an instant, just like that! Master Carthew


was struck in the side and wounded as by a sword or dagger. It lightened again and he had time to see a tall black man dressed, bit for bit, like the leech,—and it lightened the third time and the road was bare as a blade, only he saw on the top of a bank a figure like a woman making signs to the sky. Then it fell dark, and there burst a great roar of thunder and wind and the horse began to run. He checked it just outside Hawthorn and rode around by Old Path and the fields, for he felt himself bleeding and did not wish to frighten people. So, going slowly, he got home at last, and they laid him in bed and found a great wound in his side.... Joan!"

"Will he die?" said Joan.

"And will you be glad if he does?.... Wench, wench, why do you look like that?"

The old man and she faced each other, between them but a narrow space of the forest road. Her face was mobile, transparent,—a clear window through which much of her nature might be read. She had never thought to try to veil it—never until of late. It was, on the whole, a strong and beautiful nature, and none had quarrelled with the face that was its window. But of late there had come into her life to work her injury something bitter, poisonous, and dark. Fear and hatred had come, and a burning wrath against the net that was weaving, she knew not how—a wrath and helplessness and a wrath against her helplessness. All her nature flamed against a lie and an injustice. And


because she had known so little fear, and when it came it found it hard to make an entry, so it worked like poison when it was within the citadel. It was the foe she liked least; all her being rose and wrought to cast it out. But it was giving her a fight—it was giving her a fight.... And nowadays she had to try not to show what she thought or felt. Sometimes, by force of wit and will, she succeeded, keeping her soul back from the window of her face. She was not succeeding now, she felt. She bit her lips, she struggled, she turned her face from Goodman Cole, and stood, her hands closing and unclosing, then, the victory won, but too late to save her with him, she turned upon him a quiet face.

It was too late. A good old man, but simple and superstitious, he was staring at her with a misliking and terror of his own.

"I 'd heard tales, but I would n't believe any real harm of Heron's daughter,—but God knows what to think when a woman looks like that!" He edged from her, his hand trembled upon his staff; he would evidently put distance between them, be gone on his way. "The minister saith that from the Witch of Endor on they have baleful eyes—"

He suddenly put himself in motion. "Good-day to you!" he said in a quavering voice,and went on down the road with a more rapid step than was his wont.

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