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 16 chapter 32 >>

Hide page layout

CHAPTER XVII
MOTHER SPURAWAY

MASTER CLEMENT, the papers in his hand, retraced his steps until he came to a bench set in the shadow of a yew that knotted the minister's house and garden to the churchyard. He sat down and spread the three out upon the wood beside him. It was the last-found scrap upon which, naturally, he concentrated attention. ASK JOAN HERON WHO GAVE HER THE RUE THAT'S PLANTED IN HER GARDEN. He sat with knitted brow and pursed lips, searching for a meaning. One was not there at first sight. He weighed the words. JOAN HERON—The daughter of old Heron that had died of the plague. He brought her before his mind's eye—a tall, grey-eyed girl sitting quietly in church. Save for that image she did not come into his mind with any force; he had, after all, no great knowledge of her. They were outlying people, the Herons, and then they had been away from Hawthorn. He was a man of the study and the pulpit and of crisises in the parish, rather than of any minute, loving, daily intercourse and knowledge; theologian rather than pastor. JOAN HERON. He would, however, presently think together any impressions or memories. Now little occurred further than that she


219  MOTHER SPURAWAY

had been away with her father for years, living under the walls of the castle that was prelatical. In addition, he remembered that neither old Roger Heron nor this girl had ever brought to him spiritual problems to be solved. Many did bring them—cold, creeping doubts as to whether God really meant to save them or not. But the Herons had never done so. The fact, called to mind, just faintly darkened for him the name beneath his hand. He would make enquiries.—WHO GAVE HER THE RUE THAT'S PLANTED IN HER GARDEN.

Master Clement frowned. He had little taste for riddles and uncertainties and haunting suspensions of thought. Make a line distinct; colour matters plainly; if a thing were black, paint it in black! The words on the paper carried no meaning, or a foolish one. RUE.... Not long before he had been reading an account, set forth in a book, of a number of Satan's machinations, and of the devices, likings, and small personal habits of his sworn servants. A bit of this text suddenly sprang out before him, sitting there beneath the yew tree. "For plants—hemlock, poppy, and mandrake, and, especially, the witches love, handle, and give to such as show inclination to become of their company, rue—"

Master Clement slowly folded the three pieces of paper together, took out his pocketbook, and laid them in it. Grace Maybank was yet strongly in his mind, but now on the wall beside her name he put another name.


220  THE WITCH

A little later, hatted and cloaked, he stepped into Hawthorn street. As he did so he looked northward and, seeing Squire Carthew riding in from Carthew House, stood and waited. The squire approached, gave good-morning, and dismounted. He nodded his head; ponderously energetic he had put already his engines into motion. The constable with helpers was gone at sunrise to take into custody Mother Spuraway, have her into the village, and thrust her into the room beneath the sexton's house that did for village gaol. Tomorrow, after examination, and if proof of her evil-doing were forthcoming, she should be sent to town and quartered in the prison with the leech. Orders likewise had been given to the North-End Farm folk to bring into Hawthorn the afflicted boy. To confront the injurer with the injured, that was the best and approved way—

"How is Harry Carthew this morning?"

"Very fevered still. He talks strangely and paganly—about gods and goddesses and Love and the Furies and I know not what trash."

"Ah!" said Master Clement. "Were it devil or Gilbert Aderhold who struck him that night, be sure from the dagger would have run Satan's own venom, empoisoning the mind, bringing growth of nettles and darnel into the soul! The godly young man! I will pray—I will wrestle with God in prayer for Harry Carthew—"

From beyond the church there burst a small riot of sound. "They've got Mother Spuraway—"


221  MOTHER SPURAWAY

The constable had his hand upon the old woman's arm and dragged her along, she being lame and stumbling. Behind them marched the constable's helpers, a self-constituted posse. Here was the father of the afflicted boy, and Lukin the carter, and a ditcher whose arm was palsied, and one or two others. A dozen boys brought up the rear. One had run ahead to cry to the village what was happening. Everybody was coming to door and window, out of doors, into the street. Voices buzzed and clacked. The witch fever was mounting, mounting, hardening the heart, confusing the head!

When Mother Spuraway saw the minister and the squire, for all she was as old and spare and feeble as a dried reed, she broke from the constable, and, running to them, fell upon her knees and raising her clasped hands began at once to protest her innocence and to beg for mercy.

The squire spoke to the North End farmer. "They're bringing your son in?"

"Aye, sir. His mother and sister and my son that's married and his wife and my niece and Humphrey Tanner. He's twisting fearful, and he sees the dog come day and come night!"

"Your worship, your worship!" cried the old woman on her knees. "I never could abide dogs—Is it likely I'd trouble a child?—Oh, Master Clement—"

The squire was speaking with the constable and the farmer, the whole company of witch-takers hearkening to him rather than to Mother Spuraway.


222  THE WITCH

Had she not kept up a like babble clean from her own hut to Hawthorn? But the witch and straightening out the two walls were Master Clement's concern. Not always subtle, he was subtle when it came to playing the inquisitor. When the rôle fell to him, it was as though he had suddenly endued himself with a mantle that fitted. Had he lived in a Catholic country, had he been born and baptized there into an unquerying group, it is not unlikely that sooner or later he would have found employment in the Holy Office, unlikelier yet that he would not have served with zeal and a consciousness of high devoir done that King in heaven. In a vast range of relations starkly literal, he was capable when it came to theological detection, of keen and imaginative work. The churchyard yews somewhat cut off the village street; the small present crowd were attending to the squire. Master Clement put some questions. Mother Spuraway, who was now moaning and rocking herself, roused as best she could to answer. Associates? She had no associates. What, in God's name, should she have associates for? The leech? Well, the leech had taken her trade, that was all the association there—

"Ha!" said Master Clement. "The same trade! She hath said that far!"

Mother Spuraway looked at him and shrank affrighted. "My trade was to gather good herbs and make sick folk well. I meant that I was a leech as well as he."


223  MOTHER SPURAWAY

"Leechcraft is not for women," answered Master Clement. "But leechcraft was not his main trade. His trade is in souls to Satan, his own soul and others. I fear me that thou art indentured to that same master and may well speak of this atheist and sorcerer as thy fellow trafficker! Tell me what others thou art concerned with—"

Mother Spuraway had an inward sturdiness, though age and weakness, fear and pain might yet betray it. "Concerned neither with him nor with others. Oh me! oh me! I've always stood on my own feet and harmed no one—"

"They that stand on their own feet and by their own strength," said the minister, "are naught. So they lean not upon Scripture and know that they are naught in themselves, but only by grace of another, they are already lost and have reached their hand to Satan.—Tell me if Grace May bank be of thy company?"

"Grace Maybank!" Mother Spuraway's voice quavered and her frame seemed to shake. Perhaps there rose a memory of a love philtre or charm, or of Grace in trouble, coming secretly for counsel. But Mother Spuraway never took life. The child was born, was it not?—as merry and pretty a child as if it were not set apart and branded for life. Grace? It had been little that she had done for Grace! The charm had not worked; the man would not offer marriage, and so save Grace from what came upon her. Grace herself had come to the hut and bitterly


224  THE WITCH

reviled her for a useless wise woman. Grace Maybank! She began to stammer and protest that she and Grace were strangers.—But Master Clement thought the most and the worst and the impossible. "Ha!" he said. "That window hath a light in it!" In his mind Grace's name left the one wall and came over to the other.

The squire made a movement from the constable, the constable a movement toward his prisoner. "Tell me," said Master Clement in a tense and low voice,—"tell me why you gave a bush of rue to Joan Heron?"

He had not known that she had done it. It had flashed upon him to make that move. Made, he saw that it was correct.

Mother Spuraway, dazed and shaken, put up her two hands as though to ward off blows that she knew not why were coming. "What harm," queried her thin old frightened voice, "in giving a body a sprig of rue? She had none in her garden."

"How did the rue come to you?"

"It was growing about the burned cot." For all her terror and misery Mother Spuraway felt a gust of anger. "O Jesus! What questions Master Clement asks!"

The constable came and took her by the arms. "On with you! Don't say that you can't walk, when we know that you can dance and fly!"

She broke again into a pitiful clamour. "I am no witch!—Satan's no friend nor master nor king


225  MOTHER SPURAWAY

of mine—I know naught of the leech—I've put no spell on any one—Oh, gentlemen, gentlemen, think on the mother that bore you—" The constable and his helpers dragged her away. Her voice came back—"Think—think! How could I—"

In a little while the North-End Farm folk came into Hawthorn—Hawthorn quivering now with excitement. Every loss of a twelvemonth, every undeserved grief, every untoward happening, every petty mystery was awake and growing monstrous. The air was changing, the yew trees, the look of the houses, the loom to the west of Hawthorn Forest.... Today, to an observer, the church might look not greatly different from a palm-thatched or cedar roof over some sacred stone or carven god. Out of the deep veins, out of the elder world, old and gross superstition had been whistled up. It had not far to come; the elder world was close of kin. On the climbing road of the human mind the scenery of the lower slopes began to glow.

The sexton's house giving upon the green, Hawthorn could find pretext enough for gathering there in humming clusters. The sexton had a clean, bare room where at times charges were heard and prisoners brought up for examination from a cellar-like apartment below. On the whole, Justice Carthew preferred it to having poachers and vagrants, quarrellers, swearers and breakers of various commandments, petty officers, complainants, and witnesses trampling into Carthew House. Now as the warm


226  THE WITCH

midday drew on, he entered, marshalled by the constable; with him, besides a young man half his son's tutor, half his own clerk, Master Clement, and a neighbour or two of fair consequence in the village and in Hawthorn Church. In the room already were the North-End Farm folk. The crowd pressed in behind, or, when no more were admitted, stood as close as might be without the door, left open for the air. Outside the one crazy window boys stood on heaped stones, their eyes a-row above the sill. The air seemed to beat and sound and pulse. No other kind of lawbreaking could so raise, so universalize, emotion. Other kinds were particular, affecting a few. But where sorcery and witchcraft, blasphemy and heresy, were arraigned, even though it were in a poor room and village like to this, there the universal enemy, there the personal foe of God Almighty, came into court! The personal foe of God was naturally the would-be murderer of every baptized soul alive—the unbaptized were his already. Nor did he stop at attempts against their souls; he did not hesitate to direct his engines against their bodies and their goods, to burn their ricks and barns, blast their fields, palsy their arms, lame their beasts, make their children peak and pine, wither the strength of men within them—If he had not yet harmed them today, he but waited for the chance to do so tomorrow! No man, woman, or child was safe, and the thing to be done was to destroy his instruments as fast as they were found.


227  MOTHER SPURAWAY

The North-End Farm boy—an observer from the platform of a further age might have conjectured that it was partly a nervous disorder marked by hysteria, partly an impish satisfaction in the commotion produced and the attention received, partly an actual rejoicing in the workings of his own imagination together with a far past, early-man unawareness of any reason for forbearance—the North-End Farm boy cried out and writhed tormentedly.

They brought Mother Spuraway up the steep stair from the cellar and into the room, and making a clear space stood her before the boy for what should be judgement and doom. "The dog! the dog!" he cried, and writhed in the arms of the men behind him—"The dog!"

The room quivered and sucked in its breath. Now the magistrate, and now, at the magistrate's nod, the minister, questioned him. "You see the dog?—Where do you see it?—There? But something else is standing there! A woman is standing there.... Ha! Only the dog there, showing his teeth at you? Do you see no woman?... He sees no woman. He sees only the dog."

"The dog! the dog!" cried the boy. "The constable brought the dog in with him.... Oh, it wants to get at me! It's trying to shake the constable off! Oh, oh, don't let it!" And he writhed and twisted, half terrified and persuaded by the vividness of his own creation, deep down enjoying himself.

Commotion and hard breathing held in the room and outside about the door and window. "He sees her as she is when she's running with Satan!... Witch!...Witch!..."

Mother Spuraway fell again upon her knees, beat her hands together with passion. "It's not true—he's lying!—Oh, sirs, are you going to hang me for what a sick child says?"

North-End Farm raised an answering clamour. "Thou witch! 'T is thou that liest! Take thy spells off him!" The greater part of the room became vocal. "'T is not only that boy!—A many and a many things happening!—My arm, thou witch! I dug all day, and passed thee in the twilight, and next day 't was like this!—The corn so thin and burned!—The old witch! She made a sign above my wife's drink and she died and the babe died!—The witch! the witch! But she's not alone.... She and the leech.... Yes, but others than the leech.... There are folk here who can tell.... The plague—she brought the plague—she and the Devil and her fellows.... The pond!—Tie her thumb and toe and try her in the water—"

There came a surge forward. Mother Spuraway cowered and screamed. The squire might not object to the water trial in itself, but he objected and that strongly to any unruliness before Justice Carthew. The people were used to being cowed; his voice, bursting out against them, drove them back to a silence broken only by murmurs and intakes of the


229  MOTHER SPURAWAY

breath. The North-End Farm boy continuing noisy, and crying out, his father and mother had leave to take him from the sexton's room and across to the ale-house. There was curiosity to see if the dog that was visible to him alone could follow. But no! At the door he cried out that it tried to spring after him, but could not pass the minister's chair. From the ale-house itself presently came back word that he was much comforted and quiet and said that Master Clement was keeping the dog from him.

Mother Spuraway sat on a bench, somewhat cut off from the rest of the room by the heavy chairs of the Law and the Church. She sat crouched together, for the most part silent, her white hair straggling from beneath her cap, her lip fallen, her meagre, bloodless hands with high-raised veins plucking at the stuff of her old worn kirtle. The day was warm. The squire, heated and thirsty, sent across for a tankard of ale. When it was brought, he drank, set the vessel down, and wiped his mouth. "And now," he said, "'t is to find if, in getting two, we get all the vipers in the nest—"

He did not think so himself; nor did Master Clement, nor did the throng of Hawthorn in the sexton's room and without, pressing about door and window. The whispers had been continuous. It was much to have put an arresting hand upon one witch, and beyond doubt she was a witch and a vera causa! But for more years than a few Hawthorn had looked somewhat askance at Mother Spuraway. She had


230  THE WITCH

been among them for a long time, and these blackest happenings had not happened. Not in all these years the plague—never before at Hawthorn such a thing as the bold wounding of the squire's brother—never before so many accidents of one kind and another! For new activities new beings.... The leech, of course, proved beyond all seeming to be so fell and wicked a man! But not the leech alone.... The feeling, whatever it was, was increasing. There seemed something pent and thunderous, lying in wait for its chance.... There were those now in the crowd who had not been here earlier, who, having heard what was toward, had made their way in after the first. Some came from without the village. The tinker was plain to the front. Midway of the room might be seen Will the smith's son and his mother, and beside them Katherine Scott, the forester's wife. At the back, in company with the Lukins, stood Alison Inch.

The squire looked down at a piece of paper which he held in his hand. "Now what is this about a grey and white cat, and the burned cot in Hawthorn Wood?"

There rose a murmur, like wind over sedge. It grew in volume, and out of it came clear a woman's voice. "It's her familiar. He gave it to her. The boys saw him give it to her at the burned cot."

The squire lifted himself a little—looked over the crowd. "Who spoke there? Come forward here, you who spoke!"


231  MOTHER SPURAWAY

A confusion; then Cecily Lukin was pushed to the front. She came protesting, her face flushed. "Oh, Your Honour, I did n't know I was speaking so loud! I never meant to say anything—"

"Nay, you must say," answered the squire. "He or she who keeps witness back will find trouble for their own part!"

"I said naught," said Cecily, "but that she had a grey and white cat which lay on the hearth or in the sun, and that once I did see it anger itself and grow larger than natural, and its eyes glowed like lanthorns and it went backward, rubbing itself against her skirt—"

"Mother Spuraway's skirt?"

"Oh, no, sir!" said Cecily. "They say Mother Spuraway's imp is a green frog that lives in a stream by her door—"

A boy beside the tinker, nudged by the latter, opened his mouth. "Tom and Dick and Jarvis and I were playing in Hawthorn Forest by the burned cot. And a grey and white cat came out of the stones and climbed up in the plum tree and sat and looked at us, and we tried to drive it away, but we could n't. Then Master Aderhold came out of the woods and grew as tall as the plum tree and put up his arm, and cat came and lay upon it. And there was Joan Heron standing in her grey dress, and she was as tall as he was, and he gave her the cat and she laid it long her shoulder, and they went away through the woods without their feet touching the ground—"


232  THE WITCH

The forester's wife was an impatient dame. By this she had worked her way into the row nearest the justice and the minister, and now she raised her voice. "Your Honour and Maister Clement, I keep bees, and, Your Honour, they've not done well for a lang, lang time! They 've not done well since, out of kindness, I took three hives frae folk that were gaeing visiting and put them with my ain. Those bees I took, I swear were not just bees! Times I thought as much while they harboured with my bees, and would do naught nor let my ain do aught—but I kenned it well when they were gone back to where they came frae! Your Honour and Maister Clement, I ha' gone by where those hives stand now and seen those bees come flying in with wings a span long and shining, and bodies daubed with gold and making a humming sound like a fiddle-string! And those visiting folk were not auld Mither Spuraway, though I doubt not she be a witch, too!—Those beehives are standing under the thatch of Heron's cottage!"

At sunset that evening Joan sat on her doorstep, her elbows upon her knees and her brow in her hands. The apple trees were in bloom, the heartsease was in bloom beside the well, red and gold cowslips brushed her shoe. The day had been warm, but the evening fell cool and rich. All day she had not gone from the cottage. She had seen none pass either; the road, the fields, the wood were as quiet


233  MOTHER SPURAWAY

as though human life had fled from the earth. She sat with a heart oppressed, the world grown vague and monstrous.... The cottage, the garden, the fruit trees were wrapped in the afterglow. The birds were still; the last bee had come in from the flowers; somewhere in a marshy meadow, the frogs were beginning.

The grey and white cat came and rubbed itself against her. She lifted her head, and saw three or four men on the winding path between the forest road and Heron's cottage. As they came nearer she recognized first the tinker, but in a moment saw that the one at the head was the Hawthorn constable. Her heart stopped, then began to beat very heavily. As they came through the gate and up the little path she rose from the door-step.

"Good-day," said one of them.

"Good-day, neighbours."

The constable cleared his throat. He was a stolid, elderly man with many daughters and sons, and he opposed to the world a wooden, depthless face. "Probably you know," he said, "what we've come for?"

"No," said Joan: "what have you come for?"

The constable put out the staff that he carried and touched her on the shoulder. "In the King's name! You 're to come with me for being a witch and working great harm to the King's good subjects—for laming and casting spells—for worshipping Satan at his sabbats at the burned cot and the fairy oak—


234  THE WITCH

for plotting mischief with an infidel, blasphemer, and sorcerer—"

Joan stood motionless, her grey eyes clear, the blood not driven from her heart. She had seen the harm brewing, she had had her torture in watching the deep storm gather; now that it was rolling over her she grew suddenly steady. Though she knew it not she had always had strength and courage, but now she touched and drew from some great reservoir indeed. A wholesome anger helped her to it, an inner total rebellion and scorn, an amazed recognition of universal, incredible mistake and folly! Truly if men based life so crumblingly, on such a lie as this!... Sabbats at the burned cot and the fairy oak.... Plotting with—Something swept over her face, her frame seemed to grow taller in the flower-starred dusk by Heron's cottage.

The tinker was next to the constable. Now he spoke with an elfish grin and his foot trampling down the cowslip by the door. "Mistress Young Witch never thought, did she, that when Tom Tinker came up behind her, standing before the prison yonder, he saw well enough that she was making witch signs to one within?—Now the witch to the warlock—lemans must lodge under the same roof!"

<< chapter 16 chapter 32 >>