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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JOAN sat on the edge of her straw bed, with her arms around her knees and her eyes upon the blank wall. For something to do she had been plaiting straws, making braids of many strands and laying them beside her in squares and triangles and crosses, That had palled, and now she was determinedly using the inner vision. The one thing she was bent upon was neither to think not to feel these past days, weeks, and months, not to think or to feel at all closer than a year ago. She could bring back, she could recompose, she could live again, though with much subtle difference, where she had lived before. She could image forth, too; she could guide a waking dream. Now, with all the might that was in her, she made her prison cell to grow what once as a child she had seen, the sandy shore of the boundless sea. That was freedom, that was light and wind and space! Then she had raced along the beach, and in mind she ran now, long-limbed, with flying hair, only she turned not, came not back. . . . The Joan Heron here in gaol sat motionless. . . . One by one she added the other prisoners, until they all ran away by the sea beach, all hastening with the cool wind at their back and the free blue sky before. She drew


ahead. They were free and running to some happy land, but their presence made it harder not to think or feel, and so she ran ahead. Sea and sky, and harm forgot. . . . One was running beside her, leaving, too, the others. She would not image this one plainly, but they ran and ran, the sand beneath their feet. ... It never occurred to her that this was magic, nor, if it had occurred, would she have cared. It was good magic.

The rainbow vanished, the storm returned. Here was the creaking, creaking of the dungeon door; here came again the hateful gaoler, the man who had watched her that she should not sleep! She did not turn her head or speak; perhaps today he would put down the jug of water and the crust of bread and go without attempt at parley.

But he was standing waiting, his hand upon the door which he had drawn to behind him. "Hist!" he said; "Joan Heron!"

The voice was different. When she had turned swiftly she saw that it was another man, a lean, nervous, quaint-faced man in a stained leather jerkin. Across the years since the huntsman's house and the castle wood and the castle and its servants there shot a memory. "Gervaise!" she said: "Gervaise, Sir Richard's man!"

"Ah," said Gervaise with a jerk of his head; "you've got a good memory! I hope that others' are n't as good! I 've been out of these parts for the length of two Indies voyages."


He opened the door, put out his head and glanced up and down the passageway, then, with a satisfied nod, drew back, shut the door, and came close to Joan. "But I 'm Sir Richard's man still, though not, I would have you note, to the world—no, not to the world!—The man who up till now locked and unlocked this door had a dream of a purse of gold, and so yesterday he quit the gaol's service with a speech to all men that he was sick halfway to death with a shaking cold palsy! But by good fortune he had a cousin to slip in his place. I am the cousin—for the nonce, for the nonce! Hist, Joan; I remember thee well at thy uncle's there in the wood! I 'll tell thee what I once said to him. I said, said I, 'That niece of thine's got courage and wit!'—Joan, see this bundle!" He placed it beside her upon the straw.

"Aye," said Joan. "What's in it?"

"Good, plain apprentice doublet, hose, cap, and shoon! Scissors likewise to cut long hair."

Joan's hand closed upon it, but she said nothing. She looked at him with parted lips and a light in her eyes.

"Just so!" said Gervaise. "It's now close to sunset. At nine of the clock I'll be here again. Put everything you have on—put your long cut hair—into the smallest bundle you may. So, if I win you forth as a youth, my helper—God blinding them to the fact that I never brought you in!—they'll find no stitch of you tomorrow. ' The witch—the


witch hath vanished into thin air! No other one than Master Satan did ever help her forth!'"

"And when I'm forth?" said Joan.

"One thing at a time!" answered the new gaoler. "A before B; bud before flower! Roads may open. Here's no road at all."

"And that's true," said Joan. "But all the others?"

Gervaise gazed at her with his head on one side. "The others—the others! How do you think it possible that I should make a complete gaol delivery? It is not possible—not in the least possible."

"Why do you choose out me? And I thank you, Gervaise, but I think that I will not go."

Gervaise looked at her with light blue eyes, not sharp but penetrative, with a kind of basal, earth understanding. "You listen to me, Joan, and while you listen, just bear in mind that this is a dangerous business! Figure some authority out there storming, 'Where, in Cerberus's name, is the new gaoler?' Keep that in mind, I say, and that time's gold—gold?—nay, rubies and diamonds! Now, look you! 'T is no easy jaunt, forth from this prison and town, to some land of safety for witches and warlocks! Naught but courage and wit and strength and good luck by the armful will make it—and a crowd would never make it! There are two who are not to suffer death—but if they tried to flee and were taken, as, of course, they most likely would be, they would suffer it! Common sense saith, 'Those two


are better where they are.' The old woman named Dorothy died today. She's gone anyhow—made her escape clean, with Death and the scythe and hourglass. Do you think that Mother Spuraway could be dragged free—do you think that she could run and lie hidden and disguise herself, and starve if need be? For Grace Maybank—she hath pleaded that she is with child, and is not to be hanged until the elfling is born. Naught can be done there. And Elspeth No-Wit sits and laughs, and the sweetest words would not persuade her forth." He ceased speaking and stood with his light blue eyes upon her.

"There is,"said Joan," one other."

"Aye, aye," said Gervaise. "Well, you see mine is the kindly feeling to youward, and Sir Richard's is the kindly feeling to himward. Not that Sir Richard hath not a kindly feeling to youward likewise! But, I know not why, he hath the greatest liking for the sorcerer!"

"Aye," said Joan. "And after?"

"In fact," said Gervaise, "and though I would not hurt your feelings, making you seem of less importance to yourself, this is a rescue planned in the first place for the sorcerer and not for the witch! But when I am brought in—having, see you, watched you from a nook in the crowd through the trial—I say to Sir Richard. . . . More than my saying, the sorcerer makes some such catechism as you've been making, and will only have freedom on terms. So Sir Richard nods and agrees. Double peril! But if


he will not come forth else? Then I may say that Sir Richard, too, marked you, if for a witch, then a brave witch, and that he hath a taste for the quality."

"Do you mean that Master Aderhold escapes this night?"

'"Escapes'!—'escapes'! I know not who escapes. It's full of peril. But Humphrey Lantern, who takes him bread and water, served under Sir Richard in the wars. He's weary of turning keys, and hath an itch to see far countries. I know not; Fate's got it all hidden.—But if the stars are propitious, you might touch another prisoner's hand on the dark, windy road."

He stopped speaking. Joan took up the braided straws and laid them again in patterns, then brushed them aside. She sat with one hand in the other, her eyes upon the wall. Then she stood up, tall in her ragged gown. "Thank you, Gervaise! If it goes wrong, save yourself, for no worse harm can come to me. I'll make ready."

The sunset light dyed the town, the looping river, the castle on the hill, the great church, and the prison a pale red. The glow faded, night came down. Within the prison every passageway was dim enough; here a smoky light and there at a distance another, and all between a wavering dusk. The new gaoler and a youth, whom he mentioned to one they met as his nephew and helper, pursued these passages with a slow step and a halt here and a halt


there, as the gaoler's duties presented themselves. . . . But at last they turned a corner and saw before them a low portal. "Win through that and we're outside!" muttered Gervaise. " I've the key—and it would make a story, my getting it! Oiled, too."

Right and left and behind them they saw no one. He stopped. The key went in noiselessly, turned noiselessly, the door opened outward, they felt, instead of the heavy breath of the gaol, the air of the wide night. They stepped into an alley, black as pitch. Gervaise stooped, reinserted the key, and turned it. "Lock Discovery in overnight, anyway! Take the key and drop it in the river with your bundle."

Joan touched his arm. "There are two men standing yonder by the wall."

Gervaise nodded. "There's hope they're Lantern and the other. We agreed—"

They crept toward the two. Hope changed to certainty. There were some whispered words; then in the darkness the four figures stole forward, away from the prison walls that towered like the very form of Death. The night was black and quiet, but at the mouth of the alley as they left it for the wide darkness of the square they heard voices, and staves striking against the stones, and saw the lanterns of the watch. The pillory was at hand; they drew into its shadow, pressing close beneath the platform.

Swinging lanterns, forms ebon and tawny, footsteps, voices, approached, seemed to envelop them,


passed, lessened in bulk toward the High Street. The orange spheres of light dwindled to points, the voices from frightfully hoarse and loud thinned to a murmur afar. The four, Gervaise leading, moved from the pillory, friendly for once, and struck across the considerable open place. The hour was late and the townspeople housed. They saw no one in all the square. But as they came into the shadow of the great church tower they again heard voices nearing them—roistering voices of young men, petty gallants and citizens' sons, homeward bound from some place of drinking and outcasts' favours. "The church porch," motioned Gervaise. Like swallows they sped across and lodged themselves in the shadow-filled, cavernous place.

The roisterers came close, elected, indeed, just here to arrest their steps and finish out a dispute. "Black eyes are best!" averred one. "Grey eyes? Faugh! That vilest Hawthorn witch hath grey eyes! Ha, ha! Eyes like Joan Heron!"

"That she hath not! They are green. A grey eye is well enough! That vile witch's are green."


"I tell thee I saw them, green and wicked! Green beneath red gold hair."

"Grey! Grey as the sea, and hair like wheat when it is cut."

"Thou fool—"

"Thou knave—"

"Thou villain to liken my mistress's eye to that of


a vile witch and devil's whore! My sword shall make thee eat it—"

"Will it? Will it? Out, tuck—"

But a third and fourth, wiser or less flushed with wine, struck between. "Will you have the watch upon us and be clapped up for whether a vile witch's eyes are grey or green? Grey or green or blue or black or brown, ere the month be gone the crows will pick them out! Put up your blades!—I told you so! The watch—"

True it was that the watch was coming back. The roisterers fell suddenly into hushed and amicable converse, began to move, too, from before the church. But the watch were coming hastily, were already within eyeshot of the porch. It was not so dark now, either.

"The moon is up," muttered Gervaise. "We should have been clear of the town—"

It was rising, indeed, above the housetops. The watch and the young men were in parley, fifty yards away. The four from the prison pressed more closely into the shadow of the pillars. They stood in blackness and watched the full round moon silver the houses and the uneven floor of the square. The moonbeams touched the portal, picked out the carven figures that adorned it. Watch and the explanatory tavern group, voices and glowworm lanterns moved farther, lessened into distance, disappeared in the dark mouth of some street. Windows had been opened, householders were looking forth. It


needed to wait until all was again peace and sleeping time.

Aderhold spoke for the first time since the four had left the prison alley. The apprentice youth stood near him. They leaned against the one pillar, and though they thought not of it, they had among other seemings, in the lapping light and darkness, the seeming of two bound to one stake. He spoke in a whisper. "You are not afraid?"


"I knew that you would not be. Little worse can come, and something that is better may."

"Yes. ... I had rather sink trying."

The moon whitened the carvings of the porch. Grotesque after grotesque came into the light: the man with the head of a wolf, the woman with a bat spreading its wings across her eyes, the demons, the damned, the beatified exulting over the damned, fox and goat and ape crossed with man and woman. The silver, calm light turned all from black to grey. The wind whispered, the nearer stars shone, the moon travelled her ancient road and threw transformed sunlight upon the earth. The minutes passed, the town lay fast asleep.

Gervaise moved from the porch, the others followed. They would not pass through the town; they took a steep street which led them first down to the river, and then, as steeply mounting, up to the castle wood. They went in silence, with a rapid step, and came without mishap under the shadow of the sum-


mer trees. Here was a wall which they climbed, dropping from its top into fern and brush. Joan knew the path that they took, a skirting path, walled with bracken, arched over by oak boughs. They heard wild things moving, but no human tongue questioned them. It was cool and dim, and because the moon was riding high and they must make all haste, they ran along this path which stretched a mile and more. Gervaise was light and spare as a jester; the wry-mouthed, surly, one-time soldier strong enough, though somewhat rusty in the joints; Aderhold was a thinker who lived much out of doors, a leech who walked to his patients, and where there was need walked fast; Joan, a woman of Arcady, with a step as light as a panther's. These two had behind them prison inaction and weakening, prison fare, anxiety, despair, strain, and torment. They were not in health and strength as they had been. But instinct furnished a mighty spur; if they must run to live, they would run! They ran in the scented darkness, the bracken brushing their arms, the moon sending against them, between the oak boughs, a silver flight of hurtless arrows. The mile was overpast, the path widened into a moonlit vale, the vale swept downward to a fringing cliff, by day not formidable, but difficult in this gliding, watery light. The four, with some risk of broken limbs, swung themselves down by jutting root and stone, dropped at last a sheer twelve feet, and found themselves clear of the wood and the castle heights,


clear of the town, out upon the grassy edge of the London road. It stretched before them, gleaming, bare, silent as to the feet which even now might be coming after them, silent as to whether or no they would outstrip those feet, silent as to the ends that it would serve. They lay for a minute upon the bank, breathing hard, regathering force. An owl hooted, Tu-whoo! Tu-whoo! They rose from the wayside growth and took the road. It ran so hard and gleaming—it might be a friend, it might be an enemy! Over them soared the night, far off they saw sleeping houses. The air was astir, the shadows of the trees dancing on the road.

They measured a mile, two miles. The road climbed somewhat; before them, in the flooding moonlight, they saw a gibbet with its arm and down-hanging chains.

"I know this place," said Aderhold.

The wry-mouthed man wagged his head. "Creak, creak! Once I saw fifty such in a lane, and the air was black with birds! This one's stood clean for a year."

It was like a letter against the sky. Joan stared at it. Her lips parted. "I would cut it down and set fire to it, and warm some beggar and her child."

Gervaise was looking about him. "The crossroads are not far from here. He said—"

"Stand still. There's a horseman there."

Gervaise nodded his head and continued to move forward. The horseman moved from the lane mouth into the road. Even before Gervaise turned and


beckoned, Aderhold saw who it was. "The man with the hawk,"he said, and smiled.

The man of the hawk and of the silver box dismounted, threw the reins over his horse's neck, and stepped forward to meet them. Road and lane and fields, the heap of rock amid foxgloves where Aderhold had sat one summer afternoon, the knoll crowned by the gibbet—all lay bare of human life, whitened by the moon.

"Ha, philosopher! "said Sir Richard. "Places called of ill omen are often just the other way round! Well met again, under a harmless tree!" He put out his hand.

Aderhold clasped it. "Poor enough to say, 'I thank you, friend!' And yet enough when it is the very truth. I thank you, friend!"

He spoke to Joan. "This is the man who opened our prison.doors."

She came and stood beside him. "I thank you, sir. May you be through all time a friend to folk and find them friends to you!"

She stood tall and straight in man's dress. She had cut away the lengths of hair. A man's cap rested upon the short, thick locks. At first she made no motion to remove this cap; instead, as she faced Sir Richard, she made, involuntarily, the bend of knee that formed a curtsy; then, as instantly, she caught herself, recovered her height, and lifting her hand doffed the cap, and stood with it held against her breast.


The man from the castle gave a genial laugh. There was admiration in the sound. "Quick to learn! A flexible free mind—and courage! Good youth, I seem to remember you at the old huntsman's house."

"At times my father wrote for you, please you, Sir Richard. And twice or thrice you came and sat in the porch and talked with him and my uncle. And once it was cherry time, and I brought you a dish of cherries."

"I remember! And then you both went away. "His kindly look dwelled upon her. "I watched you through that five-days' comedy in the Judgement Hall yonder. I found it worth my mind's while to watch you; no less worth it than to watch this other that they called servant of Evil! As for thanks, it is yet to be seen if there is much reason."He spoke to them both. "I am putting you on the road to the nearest port, and when you reach it I can bring you to a ship there. But before you reach it, you may be taken, and if you reach it and enter the ship, I cannot answer for what will come to you afterwards in life. I may be no friend at all."

"Friend, whatever comes," said Aderhold. "If we die tomorrow, friend on the other side of that."

"We'll touch hands on that,"answered Sir Richard. "And now, seeing that you must go on to the cross-roads, I will speak while we walk."

They put themselves into motion, five human figures now upon the road, and the horse following


his master. The two escaped prisoners and their helper moved ahead; behind them came Gervaise and the gaoler, discoursing in whispers. The moon shone down, the wind took a harp-like tone.

"At the cross-roads you four—Humphrey Lantern, that was a good man-at-arms in the Low Countries, and Gervaise, a born wanderer and a man of mine between long flittings, and one Giles Allen, a chirurgeon, and John his brother—will take the road that runs to the port. If you reach it or reach it not, one wiser than I may tell! Gervaise knows a place where you may lie hidden tomorrow, going on at nightfall. You may or may not save yourselves. On the way thither I can give you but my wishes. But when you come to the port,—if you come to the port,—go at once to the harbour and find out the Silver Queen." He gave a packet wrapped in silk to Aderhold. "Give the letter therein to the captain. There is also a purse.—Nay, the thing must be done rightly!"

"The Silver Queen."

"The Silver Queen, sailing to Virginia. I have a venture in her, and the captain owes me somewhat. She carries a Virginia lading of adventurers and indentured men.—In Virginia are forests and savage men and wild beasts, but less preoccupation, maybe, with Exclusive Salvation and the Guilt of Doubt—though even in Virginia a still tongue were certainly best!—To Virginia is the only help that I can give."

"I am content," said Aderhold.


The man of the hawk looked at Joan.

"I am content," she said.

"Good!" said Sir Richard. "Humphrey Lantern is all for adventure and a new world. But Gervaise, when he has seen you safely shipped, will manage to cross to Ireland and take service for a time with my brother there. Next year I 'm for France, and I look to find Gervaise dropped like an acorn on the road to Paris. But Lantern goes with you. What, good Humphrey, is now your name?"

The red-faced, wry-mouthed man scratched his head. "I had n't thought, Your Honour. . . . George is a good name—George Dragon, Sir Richard."

The little company fell silent, walking in the mooonlight upon a road bare as a sword. . . . Behind Joan and Aderhold receded the old life, sunk away the town, the road to Hawthorn and Hawthorn and its church, the Oak Grange and Hawthorn Forest, people a many, the two Carthews, Master Thomas Clement, Alison, Cecily, other names, folk a many, things done and suffered, old life. Before them stretched something new, strange life, bare as yet of feature as the road before them. Their imaginations were not busy with it; they left it veiled, but yet they felt its presence. . . . Undoubtedly, even at this moment, even earlier than this moment, their escape might be discovered. Already the hue and cry might be raised. Even now the finders might be on their track. They might be seized long ere they could reach the port, or, having reached it, before


they could reach the Silver Queen. The Silver Queen might be searched before it sailed. They might be dragged back. The gallows and the stake might be cheated no moment of their prey. They might again see Hawthorn faces. They knew all this, but their thought did not dwell upon it. Their minds saw dimly something new, bare yet of feature.

The man of the hawk walked musing beside Aderhold. At last he spoke. "We are not far from the cross-roads. When we are there you will go your ways and I shall turn and go back to the castle. . . . If we grow by means of all circumstance as it flows by and through us, how are you changed by what has lately passed?"

"This summer," said Aderhold, " I grew somewhat past bodily fear. I should like you to know that."

"I saw no great cowardice before. . . . How now do you feel toward your fellow man?"

"My fellow man is myself."

"And toward that which we call God?"

"As I did. . . .I seek that which is high within me."

The other nodded. "I understand. . . ." They walked on in silence until they saw before them the crossroads. Aderhold remembered the ragged trees, the dyke-like bank, the stake through the heart of the suicide. The night was wearing late. The moon shone small and high. Charles's Wain was under the North Star. The five came to a stand, and here the four said good-bye to the one.

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