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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Two magistrates and certain of the clergy of the town, Justice Carthew and Master Thomas Clement from Hawthorn, sat in consultation in a room opening from the hall of assizes. Court was not sitting—it lacked a month and more of the time when judges on circuit would appear and make a gaol delivery. In the mean time a precognition was to be prepared. The case was diabolical and aggravated, involving as it did apostasy, idolatry, blasphemy, and sorcery of a dye most villanous. Evidence should not lack, witnesses must abound. On the main counts of apostasy and blasphemy the prisoner was himself convict by himself. He had been brought from the prison hard by to this room for examination, and the clergy had questioned him. But no pressure or cunning questions would make him confess idolatry or sorcery or the procuring of Master Harry Carthew's wound.

The clerk wrote down what they had—Master Clement's evidence and Squire Carthew's, together with the evidence they had gathered from others at Hawthorn, the clergy's questions and the prisoner's answers. He copied also Master Harry Carthew's written testimony, Master Carthew himself


being still in bed, fevered of his wound. There was enough and many times enough for the physician's commitment and most close confinement until assize day—enough to warrant what Carthew and the clergy urged, a petition to the Privy Council that there be especially sent a certain judge known and belauded for his strict handling of such offences, and that, pending assizes, a commission be named to take depositions and make sweeping examination throughout the Hawthorn end of the county—seeing that Satan had rarely just one in his court. Indeed, there were signs in many directions of a hellish activity, whether in pact with the leech or independent of him remained to be discovered. Hawthorn mentioned the afflicted child at North-End Farm, the great number of lamed animals, a barn consumed to ashes, and the hailstorm that had cut the young wheat.

"A woman was seen by Master Harry Carthew?"

The squire nodded. "Aye. Moreover, this long time Mother Spuraway has been suspect."

The minister of Hawthorn sat, a small, rigid, black figure, his hands clasped upon the board before him, his light-hued, intense eyes seeing always one fixed vision. His voice was unexpectedly powerful, though of a rigid quality and inclined to singsong. "My mind is not made up as to what brought the plague to Hawthorn and the region north. But I hold it full likely that Satan was concerned to harass a godly and innocent people, godly beyond


many in England, if I say it that perhaps should not! It is well known and abundantly proved that his imps and ministers, his infidels, Sadducees, and witches go about to construct a pestilence no less readily than they do a hailstorm or a tempest that miserably sinks a ship at sea. I would have the commission take evidence upon that point also—"

The clerk, a thin, stooping, humble man, slightly coughed, then spoke deprecatingly. " If I may make so bold, your worships—the prisoner hath a manner of good reputation among some in this town. He came during the plague and healed many."

"Aye, so?" answered Justice Carthew. "About Hawthorn also may be found a few silly folk who would praise him, though none I think will praise him who were at church last Sunday! But this cargo of damnable stuff we've found will beat down their good opinion."

"The unsafest thing," said a fellow justice, and nodded portentously,—"the unsafest thing a plain man can do is to think and speak well of a heretic."

And with that serving-men from the Boar's Head near by entered, bearing a collation for the magistrates and clergy assembled....

Late in the afternoon the men from Hawthorn returned home. Squire Carthew rode with pursed lips, ponderously on to Carthew House. But the minister refused an invitation to accompany him. He wished to consider these matters in his closet, alone with the Scriptures and in prayer. He put up


his horse and went into his small, chill house. There lived with him an aunt and one maidservant, and, it being late, they had his supper spread and waiting. But he would not touch the food; he had ordained for himself a fast.

With a candle in his hand he went into his small bare room and closed the door. Cloak and hat laid aside, he appeared slight and spare and sad-coloured, a man as intensely in earnest as might well be; a man, as far as his conscious knowledge of himself could light the vaults and caverns, sincere and of an undivided will to the service and glory of his God. On the table lay his Bible, open; from wall to wall stretched a space of bare floor good for slow-pacing to and fro, good for kneeling, for wrestling in prayer. The room was haunted to him; it had seen so many of what he and all his day, and days before and days after, called "spiritual struggles." But there was pleasure no less than gloom and exaltation in the haunting; there were emanations from the walls of triumph, for though his soul agonized he was bold to believe that also it conquered. He believed that he was foe of Satan and henchman of the Lord.

Terror at times overwhelmed the henchman—panic thoughts that Satan had him; cold and awful doubts of his acceptability to his overlord. But they were not lasting; they went away like the chill mists from the face of the hills. It was incredible, it was impossible that the Lord would not see his own banner, would not recognize and succour his own


liegeman! The liegeman might err and come under displeasure; good! the punishment came in agony and remorse for lukewarm zeal, in a shown sight of the evil lord to whose suzerainty he might be transferred and of that lord's dismal and horrible demesne! Nay, more solemnly and threateningly, in an allowed vision of what a disobedient liegeman would forfeit—the heavens opening and showing the rainbow-circled throne, the seven lamps, the sea of glass, the winged beasts saying, "Holy, Holy, Holy!" and giving glory and honour and thanks; the four-and-twenty elders crowned with gold, falling down and worshipping Him who sat on the Throne; the streets of gold, and the twelve gates, and the temple open in heaven, and in the temple the ark of the testament. "O God," prayed the minister, "take not my name from the book of life! Take not my name from the book of life, and I will serve thee forever and ever!"

Master Clement very truly worshipped the God whom he had seated on the throne, and was jealous for his honour and glory and solicitous for his praise among men, and would give life itself to bring all mankind under his Lord's supremacy. As little as any man-at-war of an earthly feudal suzerain would he have hesitated to compel them to come in. Was it not to their endless, boundless good, and without was there any other thing than hell eternal and everlasting and the evil lord? If, contumaciously, they would not come in, or if being in they rebelled and


broke from their allegiance, what else was to be done but to carry fire and sword—that is, to put into operation the laws of the land—against his Lord's enemies? Had any one called his attention to the fact of how largely liegemen like himself had brought these laws into being, he would have answered, Yes; under the direction of their Suzerain's own Word, writ down for their perpetual guidance, shortly after the making of the world!

It was not alone eager jealousy for his Lords glory and honour, nor anxious care that he himself prove in no wise an idle and unprofitable servant, that was felt by Master Clement. To his intense zeal and his own cries for life eternal was added a thwart love of mankind—that portion of it enclosed in the great sheepfold, and that portion who, wandering outside, lost upon the mountain-sides in the cold and darkness, yet had in them no stubbornness, but would hasten to the fold so soon as they heard the shepherd's voice through the mist. He was eager for them, his brothers and children in the fold; eager, too, for the poor lost souls upon the mountains,—lost, yet not wilfully, stubbornly, and abandonedly lost, but capable of being found and regained, so many as were elected.

But the others, ah, the others! they who set up their own wills and professed other knowledge, or, if not knowledge, then doubt and scepticism of the liegeman's knowledge, writing a question mark beside that which was not to be questioned—they who


moved away from the fold in its completeness! Master Clement's zeal flared downward no less than upward, to the left no less than to the right. He hated with intensity—with the greater intensity that he was so sure his hatred was disinterested. "Have I not hated Thy enemies?" But if those without were manifestly rather than invisibly of the Kingdom of Satan,—if their ill-doing was so great that it became as it were corporeal,—if the people saw them open atheists, wizards, and witches,—if their foot had slipped or their master had been negligent to cover them with his mantle of darkness,—the soul of Master Clement experienced a grim and deadly exaltation. He tightened his belt, he saw that his axe was sharp, he went forth to hew the dead and poisoned wood out of the forest of the Lord.

In his small room he sat and read by his one candle—read those portions of the Old Testament and the New which he wished to read. Had a spirit queried his choice he would have answered, "Is it not all his Word? And are not these the indicated circumstances and this very passage the Answer and Direction?" When he had finished reading he knelt and prayed long and fervently. His prayer told his God who He was, his attributes, and what was his usual and expected conduct; it told Him who were his enemies and rehearsed the nature of the ill they would do Him; then changed to a vehement petition that if it was his will He


would discover his enemies and bring them to confusion—and if by means of the worm Thomas Clement—

He prayed in terrible earnest, his hands locking and unlocking, beads of sweat upon his brow, prayed for the better part of an hour. Finally he rose from his knees, and standing by the table read yet another passage, then paced the floor, then sat down, and, drawing forth the tablets upon which he had made his own notes of the examination that day, fell to studying them, the open book yet beside him.

He read over a list of questions with the answers Aderhold had given. He had not been quick to give the answers—he had fenced—he had striven to shift the ground—but at last, with a desperate quietness, he had given them.

Qu. Do you believe in God?

Ans. In my sense, yes. In your sense, no.

Qu. In God as Father, Son, and Holy Ghost?

Ans. No.

Qu. Then you do not believe in the Trinity?

Ans. No.

There were other questions—a number of them—and the answers. But the very beginning was enough—enough. Master Clement, sitting rigidly, stared at the opposite wall. A sentence formed itself clearly before his eyes, the letters well made, of a red colour. Only the last of the three words wavered a little. CONVICTED AND HANGED. Or it might be CONVICTED AND BURNED. The


first two words stood steady, and above them the name, GILBERT ADERHOLD.

The concern was now to prove the sorcery—and to take all confederates in the net—to lop Satan in all his members.

The minister stared at the wall. Another name formed itself as though it were stained there—MOTHER SPURAWAY....

Master Clement sat rigid, trying to place other names beside this one. It was his sincere belief that there were others. The probable diabolical activities at the Oak Grange—the coming to Hawthorn, after so long and godly an immunity, of the late sickness—the varied and mysterious happenings, losses, and attacks with which village and countryside were beginning to buzz—this final heinous Satan-revenge and attempt upon the godliest and most greatly promising young man of whom he had any knowledge—back again, and above all, to the blasphemer, the atheist, the idolater, and denier now fast in gaol!—Master Clement was firm in his belief that so frightful and important a round of occurrences pointed to many and prime agents of evil, though always that unbeliever yonder would prove the ringleader, the very lieutenant of Satan himself! Hawthorn made a narrow stage for such a determined and concentrated presence and effort on the part of the Prince of the Power of the Air. But Master Clement's was a narrow experience and a mind of one province. To him, truly, the stage seemed of


the widest, and the quarry worthy Apollyon's presence in person.

The atheist and sorcerer himself—Mother Spuraway—who else? The minister thought of old Dorothy at the Grange. There existed a presupposition of contamination. On the other hand, so far as he knew, there had never gone out a word against her; she had seemed a pious, harmless soul, trudging to church in all weathers. That in itself, though, the Devil was wont to use as a mask. Witness the atheist and sorcerer at church! Nay, was it not known that sometimes Satan came himself to listen and to confound, if he might, the preacher, making him tame and cold in his discourse; or razing from his memory that which he had carefully prepared; or putting into his mind, even while he preached, worldly and wicked and satiric thoughts; or during a sermon of so great power that all who heard should be lifted to the courts of heaven, stuffing the mind of the congregation with a like gallimaufrey?

The minister sat stiffly, staring at the wall. Dorothy's name did not form itself there before him, but neither did he wholly dismiss it from mind. He put it, as it were, on the wall at right angles, marked, "To be further thought on." Then what other name or names for the main wall?... Old Marget Primrose was dead. He thought of two or three old and solitary women, and of the son of one of the Grange tenants—a silent and company-shunning


youth who had gotten his letters somehow, and went dreaming through the woods with a book. Once Master Clement, meeting him by the stream-side, had taken his book from him and looking at it found it naught but idle verse; moreover, it seemed that it was Master Gilbert Aderhold's book, and that the youth went at times to the Grange for instruction.... All these, the boy with the itch for learning, and the two or three women he relegated to the wall with old Dorothy.

There was one other—there was Grace Maybank. She was not old, but Satan, though for occult reasons he oftenest signed them old, signed them young as well, and though he gave preferment to the ugly and the bent, would take good looks when they were at hand. Satan had already signed Grace in another department of the Kingdom of Evil-doing. The minister rose, and going to a press that stood in the room, took from it a book in which was entered, among other things, cases of church discipline. He found the page, the date several years back. Grace Maybank, Fornicatress. Stood before the congregation, two Sundays in each month for three months in succession. Texts preached from on these Sundays for the warning of sinners.... And again, Grace Maybank, her infant being born, stood with it in her arms before the congregation, Sunday, June the——.

Grace came into the probable class. Moreover—"Ha!" said the minister, recollection rising to the surface. He took from a second shelf a book of


record, made not by himself, but by his predecessor, the godly Master Thomson. It ran back twenty years and more. He found near the beginning of the book what he was looking for. Ellice Maybank. Suspect of being a witch, and dragged through Hawthorn Pond. The said Ellice swam. Died of a fever before she could be brought to trial.

"Ha!" said Master Clement; "it descends! it descends!" But he was a careful and scrupulous man, and so he put Grace's name only up on the probable wall.

It was growing late. A wind had arisen and moaned around the house. He went to the window and looked out at the church and the church yews. A waning moon hung in the east. The yews were black, the church was palely silvered; Master Clement regarded the church with eyes that softened, grew almost mild. The plain interior, the plain exterior, the hard stones, the tower lifting squarely and uncompromisingly toward the span of sky that was called the zenith—whatever of romance was in Master Clement's nature clung and centred itself here! Hawthorn Church was his beloved, it was his bride.

He stood by the window for some minutes, then turning began again to pace the room, and then once more to read in the Bible. It chanced now—his main readings that night having been concluded—that he had eyes for passages of a different timbre. He read words of old, firm wisdom, Oriental tender-


ness, mystic rapture, strainings toward unity—golden words that time would not willingly let slip. Many a soul, many a tradition, many a mind had left their mark in that book, and some were very beautiful, and the voices of some were music and long-lasting truth and carried like trumpets.

Master Clement read, and his soul mounted: only it mounted not to where it could overlook the earlier reading in the same Bible. It never came to a point where it could hold the two side by side and say, "Judge you which concept and which mind you will accept as brother to your own! For many minds have made this book." Master Clement read, and his soul lightened and lifted, but not so far as to change settled perspectives. Had he not read these passages a thousand times before? The names remained upon the wall, and when after a time he undressed and laid himself in bed, they stayed before him without a shadow of wavering until he slept. Indeed, he drowsed away upon the word CONVICTED—

Morning came. He rose at an ascetic's hour, dressed in a half-light, and ate his frugal breakfast while the day was yet at the dawn. The two women waited upon him; breakfast over, he read the Scriptures to them, and standing, prayed above their bowed heads. Later he went out into the hedged path between his house and the church and began his customary slow walking to and fro for morning exercise. The sun was coming up, a multitude of


birds sang in the ancient trees. Master Clement walked, small, arid, meagre, and upright, his hands at his sides, and presently, in his walking, caught sight of something white at the edge of the path. It proved to be a hand's-breadth of paper, kept in place by a pebble. He stooped and picked it up. On it was marked in rude letters, JOAN HERON. He turned it over—nothing on the other side, blank paper save for the name. He walked on with it in his hand. Twenty paces farther there was another piece of paper, held by another pebble, and a fair duplicate of the first—JOAN HERON. Well within the churchyard he found the third piece—JOAN HERON. ASK JOAN HERON WHO GAVE HER THE RUE THAT'S PLANTED IN HER GARDEN.

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