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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THEIR side of the earth turned, turned with ceaseless motion toward the central orb. There grew a sense of the threshold of dawn, of the chill and sunken furthest hour, when the need was great for the door of light to open. The road they were upon was narrower, rougher, than the highway, with more hills to climb. The four travelled as rapidly as was possible, there being a goal to be reached before sunlight and the world abroad. Gervaise and Lantern swung on without overmuch effort, but the faces of Joan and Aderhold were drawn and the beads stood on their foreheads. Behind them were long prison, scanty fare, bodily hurt, broken strength. Their lips parted, their breath came gaspingly. They went on from moment to moment, each step now a weariness, all thought suspended, the whole being bent only on endurance, on measuring the road that must be measured. They did not speak, though now and then one turned eyes to the other.

Far off a cock crew and was answered by another. Vaguely the air changed, the world paled, a steely light came into the east. Gervaise looked at the two. "We'll rest here until there's colour in the sky. We've come pretty fast." There was a


great stone by the road. Aderhold and Joan sank upon it, lay outstretched, still as in the last sleep. He had a wide cloak, she had none. He raised himself upon his hand and spread over her the half of this. They lay with closed eyes, drinking rest.

Far off and not so far, more cocks were crowing. In the eastern sky the bars of grey turned purple, then into them came a faint red. The birds were cheeping in the tree-tops. The mist veil over field and meadow grew visible. Gervaise and Lantern, who had been seated with their knees drawn up, arms upon knees and head upon arms, raised their eyes, marked the red in the sky, and got to their feet. Gervaise went and touched the two. "Time to go on! We 've got to get hidden before Curiosity's had breakfast."

They went on, the light strengthening, the air warming, a myriad small sounds beginning. In less than a mile they came to a branching road, rough and narrow. Gervaise leading, they entered this, followed it for some distance, and left it for a half-obliterated cart track running through woods. In turn they quitted the woods for a stubblefield, plunged from this into a sunken lane, and so in the early sunlight came before a small farmhouse, remote and lonely, couched and hidden between wooded hills. "My granther's brother's house," said Gervaise. "Stay you all here while I go spy out the land." They waited in the sunken lane, the blue sky overhead. The wry-mouthed man busied him-


self with a torn shoe. Joan and Aderhold knelt in a warm hollow of the bank, leaned against the good earth.

"Giles and John Allen," he said. "Do not forget the names."

"No. . . . When I speak to you, am I to say, 'Giles'?"

"Aye,—aye, John."

"Do you think they will not know that I am a woman?"

He looked at her critically for the first time. " You have height and a right frame. Your voice is deeper than most women's. Now that your hair is cut, I have seen youths with locks so worn and of that colour and thickness. You are pale from prison and unhappiness, but the sun will tan your cheeks. You have mind and will, and all that you do you do with a just art. Discovery may come, but it need not come—''

Gervaise reappeared. "It's all right! The old people will not blab, and their two daughters and the ploughman have propitiously gone to a fair! Now, Master Allen, and your brother, and good George Dragon—" They moved toward the house. Gervaise jerked his thumb toward a barn that showed beyond. "Good straw—good, warm, dusk corner to lie perdu in, back of the eaves! I 'll bring food, bread and milk. So you '11 have your rest today, and tonight we'll cover as many miles as may be.—This way! We'll not go through the house.


Say we're taken, I'd rather not drag the good folk in more than ankle-deep." Say we're taken, I'd rather not drag the good folk in more than ankle-deep."

The barn was dim and wholesome-smelling. The piled straw in the loft felt good beneath aching frames. They made with bundles of it a chance-seeming barrier, behind which in a fragrant hollow they prepared to rest. Close overhead was the brown roof that, beyond their niche, sloped steeply upward a great distance. A square had been cut for light and air; through it poured vagrant, scented breezes, and in and out flew the swallows. The light was thick and brown; it would take keen eyes to see aught but straw, rudely heaped. Gervaise brought a basket filled with homely, country fare, and then a great jug of spring water. They ate and drank, and then set watches—one to watch while the others slept. Humphrey Lantern took the first.

Rest was sweet, sleep was sweet.... Joan woke sometime in the early afternoon. There in a hollow of his own sat Gervaise, succeeded to Lantern's watch. He sat, blue-eyed and meditative, chewing a straw. Lantern sprawled at a little distance, in sleep back, perhaps, in the old wars. Nearer lay Aderhold, his arm thrown across his eyes, profoundly sleeping. At first Joan was bewildered and did not know where she was; then the whole surged back. She lay quite still, and memory painted for her picture after picture.

Presently Gervaise, glancing her way, saw that her eyes were open. He nodded to her and crept over


the straw until they were close neighbours, when he seated himself Turk fashion and asked if she had slept.

She laughed. "Unless I was dead, I was asleep."

"He has not moved. Prison life's a hard life, and then I understand that before that he was up day and night with the plague.... Well, and what do you think of the wide world before you?"

"Is it so wide?"

"That's as you take it. It's as wide as your vision, your taste, and your hearing."

"I do not wish to be hanged.... It used to come and gather round me when I slept, there in the dungeon, in the prison. First the place grew large, and then it filled with people,—I could feel them in the dark,—and then I knew where the gallows was, and hands that burned me and bruised me put a rope around my neck, and in the dark the people began to laugh and curse. And then I woke up, and my hands and arms were cold and wet, and I said, 'So it will be, and so the rope will feel, and so they will laugh!'... Over and over.... But it did not come to me here, though I was asleep. I do not believe that they will take us now."

"Do you believe in witches and black men and Satan and his country?"

"I used to. Is n't every little child taught it? It's hard to rub out what they taught you when you were a child. But do I believe it now?" She laughed with a bitter mirth. "My oath, on anything


you please, that I do not believe it now! I believe that some folk have more good than bad in them, and a few have far more good than bad. And that some folk have more bad than good in them, and a few have far more bad than good. And that most folk are pretty evenly mixed, and that now one having walks forth and now another. But that we are all folk."

"That presents well enough," said Gervaise, "my manner of thinking. But then I have lived long with Sir Richard."

They fell silent. A bird flew in at the window. The pleasant, drowsy scent of the hay was about them, the sun-shot dusk, the murmur of the wind across the opening. "Is your watch nearly over," asked Joan, "and were you going to wake him next? I am awake already, so give it to me."

"Nay, nay," said Gervaise;'' neither to you nor to him! I'll sit here for another two hours and think of the flowers I might have grown. Then Lantern will take it again. You two are to get your rest.—I like well enough to converse with you, but my advice is to shut your eyes and go back to sleep."

Joan smiled at him and obeyed. She shut her grey eyes, and in two minutes was back at the fountain of rest for overwrought folk. She slept, slept, and Aderhold slept. When they waked the sun was hanging low in the west. They waked at a touch from Gervaise. "Best all of us open our eyes and pull our senses together! I hear the two daughters


and the ploughman, and maybe company with them, coming back from the fair."

There were heard, indeed, from the lane, not far away, voices talking freely and all together. Lantern crept to the window and with care looked forth. He came back. "Country folk—five or six, and merry from the fair." The voices reached the farmhouse, entered it, and became muffled. The sun dropped behind the hills.

Twilight was not far advanced when there sounded a footstep in the barn below the hayloft. The four, still before, now lay hardly breathing.

The footstep approached the loft, halted beside the ladder that led up. "Gervaise" said a quavering, anxious voice. "Granther's brother," murmured Gervaise, and crept cautiously to the edge of the loft. Presently he disappeared down the ladder, and the three, crouched where the roof was lowest, heard a muted colloquy below. The farmer's voice sounded alarmed and querulous, Gervaise's soothing. At last they ceased to talk, and the old man's slow and discontented step was heard to leave the barn. Gervaise came up the ladder and crawled over the straw to the escaped prisoners and runaway gaoler. The loft was now in darkness, only the square window glimmered yet, framing a sky from which the gold had not quite faded.

"It's boot and saddle, sound horn and away!" he said in a sober whisper. "We had not been gone two hours when some officious fool must seek the heart's


ease of Lantern's company! No Lantern to be found—all dark! No new turnkey to be found either. Whereupon they waken an authority, and he's inspired to open dungeon doors and look within! Hue and cry! Town first, but with the morning light men a-horseback on all roads.—They had it all at the fair—brought it all home. County's afire to bring the wild beasts back. Country for as many miles as necessary will be scoured clean as a prize pannikin. Reward for capture, living or dead;—bands out to earn it. All manner penalties for any who harbour. The goodman here put two and two together,—matched four with four,—and at the first chance, while they 're all at supper, comes shivering out to warn us off. Granther's brother 'll not tell, but travel it is!—Humphrey Lantern, you take the basket with what food 's left. We 'll need it. Toss the straw together so 't will not show the lair. We'll just wait till that last light goes."

They waited, felt their way to the ladder and down it, then out of the barn. Voices were noisy in the house a stone's throw away. A woman came to the open door and stood looking out. When she had turned away, they entered the lane and followed it until it set them in the wood track they had left in the morning. Here they paused to consider their course. In that direction so many miles, as the crow flew, lay the port. Return to the road they had left at dawn, strive to keep upon it at least through the night, and so make certainly the greatest speed


toward their goal? Night-time, and ordinarily there would be none or little travel through the night, and that little easily hidden from. But tonight the road might be most perilous; harrow and rake might be dragging along it. Nevertheless they decided for the road.

It was now utterly dark. They saw nothing, heard nothing, but the small continuous voice of the hot, dry night. They were rested; to Joan and Aderhold especially there seemed to have come anew youth and strength. They walked steadily, with a swinging step, and the country fell behind them and the sea grew nearer. They spoke only at long intervals and then in whispers.

"Luck's with us," offered Gervaise. "I'd almost rather see it more chequered! Very Smooth always has a mocking look in her eyes."

Lantern growled in his throat. "I haven't had much smooth in my life. It owes me a little smooth."

The moon rose. It showed them on either hand a rolling country, and before them a village. The road ran through this; therefore, for the time being, they would leave the road. They crept through a hedge and found themselves in a rough and broken field. Crossing this they pierced a small wood and dipped down to a stream murmuring past a mill. The great wheel rose before them, the moon making pearls of the dripping water. The stream had a footbridge. They hesitated, but all was dark and silent. They crossed, and as they stepped upon the beaten earth


on the farther side, two dogs sprang upon them from the shadow of the mill. They came barking furiously—the refugees snatched what stick or stone they could reach and beat them back. One was cowardly and stood off and barked, but the other, a great black beast, sprang upon the first in his path. It chanced to be Joan. She caught him by his own throat before he could reach hers, but he was fierce and strong and tore from her grasp. His teeth met in the cloth of her jerkin, he dragged her to the ground. Aderhold's hands were at his throat, choking his jaws open, pushing him backward. Over the physician's bent shoulder Lantern's arm rose and fell, the moon making the dagger gleam. The dog loosened his grip, howled, and gave back with a slashed and bleeding muzzle.

Out of a hut, built beside the mill, came a man's voice, roughly threatening. "Who's there? Who's there? Ill-meaning folk take warning!"

As they did not answer, the owner of the voice burst from the hut and came toward them, shouting to the dogs to hold fast and swinging a great thorn stick. The moon showed a half-dressed, stout rustic, bold enough but dull of wit, and still heavy, besides, with sleep. Behind him came a half-grown boy.

"Call off your dogs!" cried Gervaise. "We are seamen ashore, making from the port to the town of——. They told us there was a village hereabouts, and we kept on walking after night, thinking to come


to it. But we think it's bewitched and walks as we walk. Call your dogs off! We 're harmless men, used to the sea and crossing a strange country. Put us right, friend, and thank you kindly!"

"What have you done to Holdfast? He's frighted and bleeding."

"He pulled one of us down and nothing else served to make him loosen grip. 'T will heal and no harm done!''

But a controversy gathered in the eyes of the miller's man. "That dog's worth all the 'gyptians and vagrants and seamen between here and London town! If you think you 're going round murdering dogs—.

"I think," said Gervaise, "that I've in my pouch a crown piece which I got of a gentleman for a parrokeet and an Indian pipe. Let's see if 't wont salve that muzzle." He drew it forth and turned it to and fro in the moonlight. "Ask the dog. Hark 'ee! He says, 'Take it, and let harmless sailor folk pass!'" He slid it into the peasant's hand, who stood looking down upon it with a dawning grin. "Cross this bridge," asked Gervaise, "and we'll be in the path to the village?"

"Aye, aye," answered the fellow. "If you be harmful folk, let them find it out there!—Be you sure this piece is good? You be n't coiners or passers?"

"We be n't," said Gervaise. "The piece is as good as the new breeches it will buy."


They recrossed the bridge, stepping from it into the wood already traversed. The boy's shrill voice came to them from across the stream. "Father, father! They're four, and 't was four the man told us broke gaol! They be n't sailors—they be the witches!" His voice took a bewildered tone. "Only one of them was a woman—and they 're going toward the town—"

"What I be going to do," answered the man, "is to go up t' the house and waken miller—"

The dogs were still barking. The boy's voice rose shriller and shriller. " I know they 're witches! They had glowing eyes and they were taller than people—"

The four plunged more deeply into the wood. The confused sound died behind them.. They went up the stream a mile, came upon a track that ran down to stepping-stones, crossed the water for the second time, and once more faced seaward; then after a time turned at right angles and so struck the road again, the village well passed. But the détour had cost them heavily in time. Moreover, even in the night-time, there grew a feeling of folk aware, of movement, a fear of eyes, of a sudden shout of arrest.... They heard behind them a trampling of horses' hoofs, together with voices. There was just time to break into a friendly thicket by the roadside, and crouch there among the hazel stems, out of the moonlight. There came by a party of men, some a-horseback, some on foot.


"Four," said one distinctly.

"Shall we beat that thicket?"

"They could n't have gotten this far."

"I'll ride through it to make sure—"

Man and horse came into the thicket. They passed within ten feet of the four lying flat, but touched them not and saw them not.... When all were gone the sorcerer and the witch and their companions came forth and again pressed seaward. The dawn appeared, the sky unearthly cold and remote behind the clean black line of the earth. It showed a homeless country for them. With the first grey gleam there began a traffic upon the road. They were passed in the dimness by a pedlar with his pack, a drover with sheep. They saw coming a string of carts, and they left the road again, this time for good. They lay now amid heather upon a moor, and in the pale, uncertain light considered their course. The miles were not many now before them, but they were dangerous miles. They decided at last to break company and, two and two, to strive for the port. Say that, so they arrived there, then would they come as well to an inner ring of dangers.... But they all strove for cheer, or grim or bright, and Gervaise appointed for rendezvous an obscure small inn called The Moon, down by the harbour's edge. It was kept by a man known to Sir Richard. Get to The Moon, whisper a word or two which Gervaise now furnished, and the rest would probably go well. The problem was to get there.


It was also to decide, if they divided, who would go with whom. Gervaise looked at Aderhold. "Will you, sir, take Humphrey Lantern, and Joan go with me?" There was a silence, then Aderhold spoke, "You have proved yourself the best of guides and guards. But life has taught me, too, to watch for dangers and in some measure has given me skill. And she and I are the heinous ones and the desperate." He turned his eyes to Joan. "Shall we not keep together?"

She nodded. "Very good.... The sky is growing red."

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