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 WITCH JUDGE sat high; beside him his circuit fellow who was a nonentity; a step or two lower a row of local magistrates. The hall was large and high,—time-darkened, powdered with amber sun-shine entering through narrow windows. The commission that had so zealously discharged its duties had a place of honour. The bishop was seated as high as the judge, around him those of the clergy who did not sit with the commission. The earl was away from the castle, but at an early moment in the proceedings there came in his kinsman, Sir Richard. One of the justices whispered to the nonentity-judge, who whispered to the Witch Judge. The Witch Judge stopped short in a foaming and thunderous speech and waited until the earl's kinsman should be seated. His air recognized the importance of the entrance; he slightly inclined his enormous, grizzled head, then returned to his hurtling thunders.

The jury sat in its place. Farmers and tradesmen, it sat a stolid twelve, and believed implicitly that one who said that there was truth in the Bible, and also that which was not truth must be hanged or burned. What else was there to do with him? It had as firm | | 261 an assurance that your misbeliever was always your necromancer. Indeed, you exhibited and proved the wickedness of his unbelieving by the nauseous ill of his conduct. That was why examiners and commissions sought always until they found the thread that led to Satan's visible ownership. As for the Hawthorn witches—the jury saw them hanging in a row, and purposed buying the ballads that would certainly be made.

The hall was crowded. It was the most exciting kind of trial that could happen—barring only, perhaps, an occasional case of lèse majestè. But this was also lèse majesté. They all saw God as a King with a gold crown and throne and court; and Satan as a derision-covered rebel, and his imps and servants very ugly—when they were not at times very beautiful—and doom like a Traitor's Gate, and hell a Tower from which there was never any coming forth. . . . And it was good to feel such loyal subjects, and to marvel and cry out, "Eh, sirs! To think of any thinking that!" . . . The hall was crowded, hot, and jostling. Young and old were here, full means and narrow means, lettered and unlettered, town and country,—for many walked each day from Hawthorn,—birth and the commonalty, they who held with the Episcopacy, and they who were turning Puritan, zealots and future sectaries, shepherds and sheep! And the neighbours of the accused—as many as could get here—and those who had sat with them in Hawthorn Church—and the wit- | | 262 nesses and sufferers, fresh numbers of these being continually discovered. Now the hall held its breath while a witness was being questioned, or the counsel for the Crown spoke, or the Witch Judge thundered, and now it buzzed and hummed like the bees that they said were bewitched. Heat, many bodies in contact and a mist of breaths, an old, old contagion of opinion old as savagery . . .

The Witch Judge was to most a fearful delight. No silent, listening, seldom-speaking judge was he! He had a voice like rolling thunder and an animus against just those wrongs judgement upon which had swelled his reputation. He overbore; he thundered in where Jove would have left matters to lesser divinities; he questioned, answered, tried, and judged. He loved to hear his own voice and took and made occasions. Nor would he hasten to the end, but preferred to draw matters out in long reverberations. He was prepared to give a week, if need be, to this trial which was concluded ere he took his seat. In all, in the Hawthorn matter, there were eight folk to be tried. Destroy one, destroy all, principal and accessories, the whole hung together! But he was prepared with devices and nourishes, and for each soul on trial specific attention and cat- and-mouse play, for the Witch Judge loved to show his variousness. . . . The practice of the age was everywhere elastic enough, but in no trials so licensed as in such as this. What need for scruples when you dealt with Satan? . . . No counsel was allowed the pris- | | 263 oners. If ever there was floating in the air a notion that the judge should be counsel for prisoners, guarding them from injustice and oppression, it had made no lodgement in this judge's ear.

The writ de hæetico comburendo! The Witch Judge thundered forth the text of it, then preached his sermon. This wretched man, this wicked leech, this miscreant, blasphemer, and infidel had made confession of his crime of apostasy—the most enormous under heaven—confessing it without tears, shame, or penitence! Confessing! nay, avowing, upholding—The Witch Judge glowed fuliginous; his voice of horror seemed to come from the caverns of the earth. "He denieth the actuality of the Holy Trinity— he saith that the world was not made in six days and is not composed and constructed as set forth in the Holy Scriptures—he refuseth to believe in the remission of sins by the shedding of blood—No language nor tongues," cried the Witch Judge, "can set forth the enormity of his error, sin, and crime! Let him burn, as God saith he will burn, through eternity and back again!" The phrase caught the fancy of the throng. It came back in a deep and satisfied murmur. Through eternity and back again.

On crackled and roared the Witch Judge's thunder. Convict by manifold testimony and impeccable witnesses, and wholly and terminably convict by his own confession without violence, it remained—the authority of Holy Religion and the Ecclesiastical | | 264 Court being present in the person of my Lord Bishop—it remained but to give judgement and pass sentence upon the apostate! In regard to his apostasy. But this wicked leech rested also under a charge of sorcery—sorcery of the blackest—sorcery which he obdurately denied! Let him, then, before judgement given, be tried for his sorcery—he with these wretched others, for Satan hunteth not with one beagle, but with many!

The Witch Judge half rose, puffed himself forth, became more than ever a bolt-darting Jupiter. Trials for heresy, apostasy, blasphemy were not in themselves wholly his element. But let them darken and lower as indeed, they almost always did darken and lower—into questions of actual physical contact and trade dealings with the Hereditary Foe, then he was in his element!... Wizards and witches! The Witch Judge shook his hand above the prisoners. "And let not any think Witchcraft to be other or less than Apostasy, Idolatry, and Blasphemy! If Apostasy is the Devil's right hand, Witchcraft makes his left—his left? Nay, his right and most powerful, for here is your apostate in action—here is your unbeliever upon his Lord Satan's business!" Witchcraft! Witchcraft! The Witch Judge paced around, threw lurid lights upon the crime he battened on. His tribute of huge words rolled beneath the groined roof and shook the hearts of the fearful. There came back from the crowd a sighing and muttering, half-ecstatic, half-terrified, low sound. The word of God | | 265 —the command of the Most High, taken from his own lips—the plainest order of the King of Kings.—Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live... Statute of the first year of our present Gracious Sovereign, our lord, King James—All persons invoking any evil spirit, or consulting, covenanting with, entertaining, employing, feeding, or rewarding any evil spirit, or taking up dead bodies from their graves to be used in any witchcraft, sorcery, charm, or enchantment, or killing or otherwise hurting any person by such infernal arts, are declared guilty of felony without benefit of clergy and shall suffer death. He had a way of uttering "death " that made the word a distillation of all the suffering man could make for man.

Preliminary thunders from the Witch Judge ceased. Counsel for the Crown came afterwards like a whistling wind. The long Hawthorn Witch Trial began, and stretched from midsummer day to day. To many it afforded an exciting, day-by-day renewed entertainment; to some it was a fearful dream; to a very few, perhaps, it seemed along, dull, painful watch by mortality's fever bed. Once Aderhold caught the gaze of the earl's kinsman upon him. The eyes of the two met and agreed as to what was passing, then Aderhold looked away.

The prisoners had their appointed space. At times they were all brought together here; at times the greater number were withdrawn, leaving one or two to be examined separately or together. The heat and the light struck against them, and the waves of | | 266 sound; from one side came the booming of the judge's voice or the dry shrilling of the king's lawyer; from the other the whisper of the crowd that meant to have witch blood. There were Aderhold, the youth to whom he had given books, the boy of sixteen, old Dorothy's nephew, Dorothy herself, a half-witted woman from a hut between the Grange and the North-End Farm, Grace Maybank, Mother Spuraway, and Joan Heron—eight in all.

Mother Spuraway—Now torture was not allowed in England, though on the Continent and in Scotland it flared in witch trials to its fullest height. Mother Spuraway, therefore, had not been tortured—no more than Aderhold, no more than Joan, no more than others. But it was allowable, where confession did not come easily, to hasten it with fasting from bread, water, and sleep—all these being with-holdings, not inflictings. There might be, too, insistent, long-continued questionings and threats and a multitude of small gins and snares. Mother Spuraway had been long weeks in gaol, and she was old and her faculties, once good, were perhaps not now hard to break down. At any rate, she had a ghastly look and a broken. Since she trembled so that she could not stand, they put her into a chair.

"Now answer strictly the questions asked you, if you have any hope of mercy!"

Mother Spuraway put her two trembling hands to her head. "Mercy?Yes, sirs, that is what I want. Mercy."

| | 267

"Very well, then! Look on this man and tell us what you know of him."

The clerks' pens began to scratch.

Mother Spuraway's gaze was so wandering that while it came across Aderhold, it went on at once to a cobweb above the judge's chair. "He is the Devil," she said.

"You mean the Devil's servant."

"Yes—oh, yes! Devil's servant. I mean just what Your Honours want."

The Witch Judge thundered at her. "Woman! it is not what we want. You are to speak the truth. Truth-speaking is what we want."

Mother Spuraway's head nodded, her eyes fallen now from the cobweb to the judge's robe. "Yes, sirs—yes, sirs. You shall have what you want. Oh, yes, sirs!"

"She asserts," said the counsel for the Crown, "that she tells the truth.—You were used to going to sabbats with this man?"

"Yes, sirs,—sabbats, sabbats, sabbats, sabbats—"

"Give her wine," said the Witch Judge. "She is old. Let her rally herself. Give her wine."

A gaoler set a cup to her lips and she drank. "Now," said the Crown, "tell us of these sabbats—circumstantially."

Mother Spuraway, revived by the wine, looked from floor to roof and roof to floor and at the commission and the Witch Judge and the bishop, and at | | 268 the motes in a broken shaft of light. "We danced about the burned cot—all taking hands—so! Sometimes of dark nights we went widdershins around Hawthorn Church—sometimes it was around the fairy oak at the Oak Grange. Sometimes we danced and sometimes we flew. We rode in the air. I had an oaken horse—and Grace had an elmen horse and Dorothy had a willow horse, and Elspeth No-Wit had a beechen horse, and Marget Primrose had a horse of yew—"

There was a movement among the commission. "Marget Primrose,"exclaimed Squire Carthew, "died years ago!"

"She came back. Marget had a yew horse—and I had an oaken horse—and there were other horses, but I never learned their names. And there were green men—''

"Was this man in green?"

"No, no! He had on a doctor's cloak. Sometimes he fiddled for us when Satan grew tired."

"Then he was a chief among you?"

"Yes, yes, a chief among us.—Sometimes we changed to bats and mice and harmless green frogs and hares and owls and other creatures—"

"You did that when you were about to go to folk's houses or fields to injure them?"

"Yes, sirs, yes, yes—about to injure them. Then I was a dog, and Grace a little brown hare, and Dorothy a great frog, and Elspeth No-Wit a bat, and Marget Primrose—And we brewed poisons and | | 269 charms in a great cauldron inside the burned cot, but at the fairy oak we made little figures out of river clay and stuck them full of pins. And there we had a feast—"

"And this man?"

"He sat on the green hillock beside Satan, and Satan had a black book. He gave it to him to read in while we were dancing and eating and daffing with the green men—and then the cock crew and we all flew home."

"There were many sabbats?"

"Oh, yes, many!"

"And this man was always among you?"

"Yes, always among us."

"You say he read in a black book. But he likewise danced and wantoned as did the green men?"

"Yes, yes! The pretty green men."

"Be careful now. With whom especially did he work this iniquity. Whom did he single out at each sabbat?"

"Whom?—I do not know whom. . . . Sabbats? There are no such things. Who would leave home at night to wander round oak trees and burned cots?—Oh, home, home! Oh, my hut! I want to see my hut!" cried Mother Spuraway. "Oh, good gentlemen! Oh, Your Worships! Oh, Squire Carthew—Master Clement!—Won't you let me go home? A poor old woman that never harmed a soul—"

The Witch Judge's voice came thundering down. "Her mind is wandering!—Thou wretched woman! | | 270 Dost wish to be taken back to thy prison, and urged anew to confess?"

But apparently Mother Spuraway did not wish that. She put up her two hands and said, "No, no!"—then, shrunken and shuddering, begged for more wine. They gave it to her. . . . "Now, whom did this sorcerer take in his arms? Was it the maiden of your company?"

"Yes, oh, yes! The maiden."

"The maiden of your company was Joan Heron?"

"Yes, Joan Heron."

The shafts of light were shortening, the earth wheeling toward sunset. Without clanged the bells of the great church—it was late afternoon. The people who had far to walk, though loath for the entertainment to cease, yet approved when the court rose for that day. Morning would not be long, and they purposed returning most early in order that good places might be got. The hall and the square without seethed and sounded with the dispersing crowd.

Near at hand was the prison, its black mass facing the great square, the pillory in its shadow; beyond, slanting down to the river, the field where they raised the gallows. The prisoners when they were removed were taken, guarded, along by the wall, into the dark, gaping prison mouth.

Joan walked beside Mother Spuraway. In the last three or four days the hand of withholding had been lifted from the prisoners so that they might get | | 271 their strength. . . . Joan walked with a colourless, thin cheek and shadowed eyes, but walked steadily. But Mother Spuraway could not drag her limbs across the stones; a gaoler held her roughly up with a force that drew a moan. Presently, his grasp relaxing, she stumbled again and fell. Joan stooped and raised her, then with her arm about her bore her on. "Thank'ee, my pretty maid," said Mother Spuraway. " I 'll do as much for you when you are old!"

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