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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ADERHOLD looked forth from a narrow grating, so high-placed that he must stand a-tiptoe like a child to see at all. Summer without,—summer, summer, and the winds of heaven! Within the gaol was summer close and stagnant. It was difficult for light and air to make their way into the space where he was kept. What could come came, but much was prevented by the walls and the intention with which they had been built. In that day, in a prison such as this, a noisy medley of people without freedom might be found in the dark and damp central passage and larger rooms or in the high-walled and dismal bit of court. All manner of crime and no-crime, soil, mistake, and innocence huddled there together, poisoning and being poisoned. Time and space received of their poison, carried it without these walls with at least as much ease as air and light came in, and distributed it with a blind face and an impartial hand.

But certain prisoners, those that people without the prison thought too poisonous or were willing vengefully to make suffer, were not allowed the hallway or the court or speech with fellow misery. These were put into small, twilight chambers or dungeons.

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Aderhold paced twelve feet by six—twelve feet by six. He was shackled, a chain from ankle to ankle, another from wrist to wrist. But they were not heavy, and there was slack enough, so that one might walk and to some extent use the hands. Twelve feet by six—twelve feet by six. What light fell through the loophole window fell in one thin shaft of gold-dust. The walls were damp to the touch, and scratched over with names, ribaldry, and prayers. He himself, with a bit of pointed stone that he had found, was graving in Latin upon an unmarked breadth. Twelve by six—twelve by six—where the straw pallet was flung, not more than three feet clear.

He knew well how to avail himself of the escape of the mind and thereby to defeat the hours. He had no books, but memory and imagination were to him landscape and library, while the searching thought worked here as elsewhere. Memory and imagination could become his foes; Aderhold had known that from of old. Oftenest friends and great genii, but sometimes foes with mowing faces and stabbing, icy fingers. But strangely to him, in these days, no hostile side appeared; or if it came, it came in lessened strength; or if its strength was the same, then the opposing forces within him had themselves gathered power to overcome. It seemed to him that of late he had come to a turning; fear, shrinking, and dismay, that had often met him full course in life, often lurked for him at corners he | | 237 must pass, seemed now themselves somewhat shrunken and sinewless. He had known that there was further growth within him—oh, further, further!—and that some day he would turn and look them in the face and see them for the pygmies that they were. It seemed that the dawn of that day had been nearer than he knew.... Twelve feet by six—twelve feet by six—with as even and steady a pace as the irons would allow, and all the time to fancy that he walked free in Hawthorn Wood. Then, for a change, to draw himself up and see what might be seen through the slit of window. What might be seen was the topmost branch of a tree and a gargoyled angle of the great church tower, and above all a scimitar breadth of blue sky. From that to turn and grave at a letter upon the wall; then to walk again; then to rest upon the straw while the subtile body went free, passed like an emanation through the prison walls and wandered in foreign lands, and where there was neither land nor water underfoot. At times he took under consideration his own present predicament and earthly future. But the sting and terror were gone. That they were so he thanked his higher self, his widening, deepening, marching consciousness.

His present case.... There had been the examination immediately after his arrest and commitment to this gaol, the examination when he had admitted the apostasy and denied the sorcery. But that had been weeks ago, and since then naught. | | 238 Day after day in this dusk place, and only the turnkey had entered.

This gaoler was a battered, sometime soldier, red-faced and wry-mouthed. What romance had been in his life appeared to have come to him with the dykes and green levels and waters of the Low Countries. Chance leading him one day to the discovery that his prisoner knew Zutphen, Utrecht, and Amsterdam, he had henceforth, at each visit, plunged back for one short moment into the good old wars and renewed a lurid happiness. The reflex, striking upon Aderhold, lightened his lot as prisoner. The gaoler, after the first few days, exhibited toward him no personal brutality. Once he made, unexpectedly, the remark that he had seen good fighting done by all manner of people, and that the Devil must have some virtue in order to make so good a stand. But the gaoler's visits were of the briefest, and he was close-mouthed as to all things save the wars. If he knew when assizes would be, he chose not to impart it. One day only he had been communicative enough to speak of the commission named by the Privy Council. Who were the commissioners? He named the members from this side of the county—two or three of the clergy, several considerable country gentlemen. From the Hawthorn end Squire Carthew and his brother and Master Clement the minister. It had been at work, the commission, meeting and meeting and taking people up. The matter was become a big matter, making a noise through the | | 239 country. They said the King himself was interested. A bishop was coming—and the Witch Judge.

"The Witch Judge?"

"Aye, the Witch Judge."

But the gaoler would say no more—Aderhold was not sure that he knew much more. He left the cell, and at no other visit would he speak of anything but the Dutch and the good wars.... What he had said had left a sharp thorn of anxiety,—not for the prisoner's self. Aderhold knew perfectly well how palely hope gleamed upon Gilbert Aderhold. He would be done to death. But he knew also, from much observation, how they dragged the net so as to take in unallied forms. He tried to think of any at Hawthorn or thereabouts who might be endangered. He had been intimate with no one; none there had been confidant or disciple. How many that could save he had had occasion to note in France and Italy. Speech with such an one, acts of mere neighbourliness, the sheerest accidental crossing of paths—anything served for prosecution and ruin... In the lack of all knowledge he was chiefly anxious about old Dorothy and the boy her nephew, and the youth to whom he had given books. He never thought of Joan as being in peril.

Counting the days, he gathered that assizes could now be no great way off. Then would he hear and know, be judged and suffer. After that—continuance, persistence, being, yet and for ever, though he knew not the mode nor the manner of experience. | | 240 ... The gold light lay across the cell like a fairy road. He turned upon his side, eased wrist and ankle as best he might, and with the chain across his breast fell half asleep. Ocean waves seemed to bear him up, a strong warm wind to blow upon him, birds to be flying toward him from some beautiful, friendly strand....

The grating of the key roused him. It was not the gaoler's time of day, but he was here, red-faced and wry-mouthed.

Aderhold rose to his feet. "Are the Judges come?"

The gaoler shook his head. "No, no! They're trying highway thieves next county. You're to be lodged t' other side of gaol."

They went down a winding stair and through a dark and foul passageway, then from one general room to another. The place was here dusk and gloom, here patched with sunny light. It was well peopled with shapes despairing and complaining, or still and listless, or careless and noisy. The gaoler and Aderhold crossed a bit of court and came by a small door into a long and narrow room where again there were prisoners, men and women.

"Stand here," said the gaoler, "while I get an order." He moved away to a door in the wall.

The place was warm and dusk, save where from high windows there fell a broken and wavering light. There was a dull murmur as of droning bees. Sound, too, from the town square without floated in,— | | 241 summer sounds. A fugitive memory came to Aderhold. It was years ago, and a spring morning, and he was riding across the square with Will the serving-man, Master Hardwick behind in the litter, ahead on his great roan Harry Carthew. Upon the heels of that retracing came another. It was last winter again, and he stood on a doorstep not far from here, and ten feet away Sir Richard from the castle sat his horse and smelled at his silver box of spices.... He came back to the present hour. This place was long, like a corridor; it was curiously gold-brown and red-brown, like a rich painting for light and shadow. He looked across and, standing alone against the wall, he saw Joan Heron.... All noise stilled itself, all other shapes passed. It was as though there were spread around them the loneliest desert or sea-strand in all the world.

Joan stood straight against the wall. Her grey dress was torn, her grey eyes had shadows beneath them, she had no colour in cheek or lip, and she stood indomitable.

Aderhold put his hand before his eyes. "Mistress Friendly Soul," he said, "why are you here?"

"For somewhat the same reason," she answered, "that you are here. Because it is a crazed world."

"How long—?"

"A long time.... Nearly four weeks."

"Is it my misery to have brought you here?"

"No," said Joan, "cruelty and wrong brought me here."

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"You are charged with—"

"Yes. With witchcraft."

The gaoler, returning, began furiously to grumble that he would have no speaking together, and urged Aderhold away. There was naught to do but to obey; he went, but at the door looked back. She was standing with her grey eyes and her sorrowful face set in scorn of this place and of the world. The door closed between them.

"No!" said the gaoler. "No questions, for I'll not answer them. Say naught and pay naught!—Down this stair. You won't be so well lodged."

It mattered not greatly to Gilbert Aderhold how he was lodged. When the gaoler was gone and the grating key removed, and solitude with him in this dim place, he lay down upon the stone that made its flooring and hid his face. After a time, rising, he walked the dungeon where he was immured. He struck his shackled hands against the wall, pressed his forehead against the stone....

The hours passed, the day passed, another night passed; another dawn came, strengthening outside into burning day. The gaoler appeared for a moment morning and evening, then darkness and silence.... He thought that he must be yet nearer the great church than he had been in his first cell. He could hear the bells, and they clanged more loudly here.

Aderhold, pacing the space not much longer or wider than a grave, heard in their ringing church bells far and near and deep in time. He heard them | | 243 ringing over Europe and from century to century. He heard the bells of a countryside that had rung when he was a child and had loved them well. He thought of the hosts who had loved the church bells, who loved them yet; of the sweetness and peace and musical memory they were to many—to very many; of the thousand associations, hovering like overtones, thoughts of old faces, old scenes, old gladnesses. He saw old, peaceful faces of men and women who had made their religion a religion of love and had loved the church bells. Waves of fragrant memories came to Aderhold himself—days of a serious, quiet childhood when he had pondered over Bible stories; when in some leafy garden corner, or on his bed at night, he had gone in imagination step by step through that drama of Judea, figuring himself as a boy who followed, as, maybe, a younger brother of the beloved John. It came back to him—as, indeed, it had never left him—the soft and bright and good, the pristine part, the Jesus part, the natural part. Do unto others as thou wouldst have others do unto you—Love thy neighbour as thyself—I say unto you until seventy times seven times

The church bells! The church bells! But they had swung him here into this narrow place and dark, and they would swing him into a darker and a narrower. They had swung Joan Heron there where she stood against the wall.... The many and the many and the many they had rung and swung to | | 244 torture, infamy, and death! The church bells! They rang in the name of a gentle heart, but they rang also for the savage and poor guesses, the ferocities, the nomad imagination of an ancient, early people. They rang for Oriental ideas of despot and slave, thrones and princes, glittering reward of eternal, happy indolence, fearful punishment of eternal physical torment and ignominy! They rang head beneath the foot, and he that raiseth voice against this Order, not his body only, but his soul and his memory shall be flayed!... Palestine or England, what did it matter? Caiaphas or the Christian Church?... The searching, questing spirit that, age by age, lifted from the lower past toward the light of further knowledge, larger scope—and the past that, age by age, hurled its bolts and let its arrows fly and rang its iron bells against that spirit.... The bells rang and rang. He heard them sweet and softened across the years and knew that many loved them and held them holy; he heard them ring, jubilantly, above many a martyr's stake, massacre, war, and torture chamber, ring the knell of just questioning, ring the burial, for yet longer and yet longer, of the truth of things; and knew that many, and those not the least worthy, must abhor them. He had loved them, too, but today he loved them not. They clanged with a hoarse old sound of savage gong and drum and tube calling to the sacrifice....

Between morning and midday the door opened and his red-faced, wry-mouthed friend of the Dutch | | 245 wars appeared. "Two of the commissioners would talk with you." They climbed the stairs leading from the darkness, and passed again through that long and narrow room. But though there were prisoners here, Joan Heron was not among them. The gaoler turned to the left and, opening a door, signed to him to enter a fair-sized, well-lighted room where were chairs and a table. The light dazzled him, coming from the almost night underfoot. When his vision cleared he saw that the two who awaited him were the minister of Hawthorn and Master Harry Carthew.

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