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 SILVER QUEEN, a ship neither great nor small, high-pooped, white-sailed, her figurehead a crowned woman, her name good for seaworthiness, ploughed the green water. Her sailors and the adventurers for new lands whom she carried watched their own island sink from view, watched the European coast, saw it also fade, saw only the boundless, restless main. The ship drove south, for the Indies' passage.

Mariners and all, she carried a hundred and sixty souls. Captain Hugh Bard was the captain—a doughty son of the sea. Her sailors were fair average, tough of body, in mind some brutal, some weak, some good and true men. She was carrying colonists and adventurers to the New World, accessions to the lately established settlement at Jamestown. Among these men were sober-minded Englishmen, reputable and not ill-to-do, men who had warred or traded with credit in various parts of the world, who had perhaps joined in earlier ventures to American shores. These carried with them labourers, indentured servants, perhaps a penniless kinsman or two, discontented at home. The mass of those upon the Silver Queen were followers and in- | | 328 dentured men. But there were likewise adventurers going singly, free lances, with enough or just enough to pay passage, men all for change and roving, or dare-devil men, or men with wild fancies, hopes, ambitions, intents, or men merely leaving worst things for a conjectural better. Also there were a few who thought to practise their professions in the new settlement, a barber and perfumer, a musician, a teacher, a lawyer, and a divine. It was an average swarm from old England, in the early years of colonization.

Aboard was but one woman, and she was not known as a woman. She was called John Allen, and went as the still-mouthed and loneliness-loving brother of the chirurgeon Giles Allen. In the first days the latter had stated to a group, from which John Allen had risen and gone away, that his brother was but now recovering from a melancholy brought about by the death of one whom he had loved. Now those aboard were not beasts, but men with, in the main, answering hearts to lovers' joys and woes. For the most part not over-observant or critical, and with their own matters much in mind, they took the statement as it was given them and allowed to John Allen silence and solitude—such silence and solitude as were obtainable. Silence and solitude were all around upon the great sea, but the ship was a hive adrift.

Captain Hugh Bard was under obligations to Sir Richard. Clients of Sir Richard—nothing known | | 329 but that they were folk whom that knight was willing to help from England—were sure of his blunt good offices. Moreover, the ship's doctor fell ill, whereupon Giles Allen offered his services, there being much sickness among the colonists. The captain nodded, found that he had aboard a skilled physician, and took a liking to the man himself. Aderhold asked no favours for himself, and none that might arouse suspicion for her who passed as his brother. But yet, with a refinement of skill, he managed to obtain for her what she wanted in that throng of men—a little space, a little distance.

She never added difficulty to their situation. She was no fine lady. She was yeoman born and bred, courageous and sane. It was yet the evening glow of the strong Elizabethan age. Men and women were more frank and free in one another's company than grew to be the case in a later period. The wife or mistress, sometimes the sister, in the dress of page or squire, fellow traveller, attendant at court, sometimes fellow soldier, made a commonplace of the age's stage-play or romantic tale. If the masquerade occurred oftener in poem or play than in fact, yet in the last-named, too, it occurred.

Joan had native wit. Her being, simple-seeming, pushed forward complexes enough when it came to the touch. Aderhold marvelled to see her so skilful and wary, and still so quiet with it all that she seemed to act without motion, or with motion too swift for perception. She went unsuspected of all— | | 330 a tall, fair youth with grey eyes and a manner of reserve, brooding aside over some loss of his own.

Giles Allen, John Allen, George Dragon—it was George Dragon, Aderhold came to see, who furnished the danger point.—Humphrey Lantern was no artist to put forward a self complete, yet not your home and most familiar self. He had no considerable rôle to play; he was merely George Dragon, an old soldier of the Dutch Wars, who since had knocked about as best he might, and now would try his fortune in Virginia. He was at liberty to talk of the good wars and the Low Countries all he wished. He sought the forecastle and the company of the ruder sort and he talked of these. But he was forgetful, and at times the near past would trip up the far past. Never the very near past, but Aderhold had heard him let slip that for part time since the good wars, he had served as a gaoler—"head man in a good prison," he put it with a grim touch of pride. Aderhold thought that some one had given him usquebaugh to drink. When he cautioned him, as he earnestly did at the first chance, Lantern could not remember that he had said any such thing, but, being sober, he agreed that the least thing might be spark to gunpowder, and that their lives depended upon discretion. He promised and for some time Aderhold observed him exercising due caution. But the fear remained, and the knowledge that Lantern would drink if tempted, and drunken knew not what he said.

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At first they had a favouring wind and seas not rough or over-smooth. The ship bore strongly on, and the spirits of most aboard were good. Now and then broke out revelry and boisterousness, but the men of weight kept rule among their followers, and Captain Hugh Bard would have order where he commanded. The wilder sort, of whom there were enough aboard, must content themselves with suppressed quarrels, secret gaming, a murmur of feverish and unstable talk and conjecture. There were those who, wherever they were, must have excitement to feed upon. Their daily life must be peppered with a liberal hand, heightened to a fevered and whirling motion with no line of advance. These were restless, and spread their restlessness upon the Silver Queen. But there was much stolidity aboard, and at first and for many days it counteracted.

The wind blew, the sails filled, they drove cheerily on. They came to the Canaries, on the old passage, then drove westward. Days passed, many days. They came to where they might begin to look for islands. And here a storm took them and carried them out of their reckoning, and here their luck fell away from them. The storm was outlasted, but after it there befell a calm. The wind failed, sank away until there was not a breath. Sullen and stubborn, the calm lasted, weary day after weary day. The sails hung lank, the water made not even a small lipping sound, the crowned woman at the prow stood full length and steady, staring at a glassy floor. | | 332 The sea was oil, the sky brazen, and the spirits flagged like the flagging sails. Day after day, day after day...

At dawn one morning Aderhold and Joan leaned against the rail and looked at the purple sea. It lay like a vast gem, moveless and hard. The folk upon the ship were still sleeping. The seamen aloft in the rigging or moving upon the decks troubled them not, hardly looked their way.

"If you held a feather before you," said Joan, "it would not move a hair's breadth! They are to pray for a wind today. Master Evans will pray—all aboard will pray. Is it chained somewhere, or idle or asleep, or locked in a chest, and will we turn the key that way?"

"Did you see or speak to George Dragon yesterday?"

"No. Why?"

"Some of these men brought aqua vitœ or usquebaugh aboard with them. He games for it and wins. And then his tongue wags more than it should."

"I did not know.... Danger, again?"

Yes. He thinks he has done no harm, then is alarmed, penitent, protests that he will not—and then it's all done again.... Poor human weakness!"

"And if—?"

?"We will not look at that now," said Aderhold. " It would unroll itself soon enough.—Joan, Joan! I would that you were safe!''

"I am safe. I would that you—"

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"I will match your 'I am safe.' I, too, am safe. Nothing here can quench the eternal, flowing life! But until we have lifted this level and built more highly we shall feel its pains... and feel them for one another. And now I ache for your danger."

The east was carmine, the sea from purple turned carmine—carmine eastward from the Silver Queen to the horizon; elsewhere a burnished play of greens and blues, a vast plain, still, still! It flowed around and away to the burning horizon, and not a sail and not a breath, and no sound in the cordage overhead. The deepening light flowed between Joan and Aderhold, and in it, suddenly, the body of each was beautiful in the other's eyes.... The sun came up, a red-gold ball. Neither man nor woman had spoken, and now, suddenly, too, with the full dayspring, the ship was astir, men were upon the decks. Gilbert Aderhold, Joan Heron stepped back into the violet shadow; here were Giles and John Allen.

Up to these now came Master Evans, the minister bound for Jamestown, a stout, gentle-faced man in a sad-coloured suit. "Fast as though the ship were in the stocks!" he said. "But if the Lord is gracious, we will pray her free! Breakfast done, we will gather together and make hearty supplication." He looked across to the sun, mailed now in diamond, mounting blinding and fierce. The sweet coolness of the earlier hour was gone; wave on wave came heat, heat, heat! Master Evans clasped more closely the Bible in his hand. "Thou sun whom for Israel's sake the Lord | | 334 halted in thy course and held thee nailed fast above Gibeon! Dost thou think if He chooses now to veil thy face with cloud and to blow thy rays aside, thou canst prevent? And thou hot and moveless air, if He choose to drive thee against the stern of this ship and into the hollow of these sails, wilt thou make objection? Nay, verily! And why should He not choose? Here upon this ship are not infidels and heathen, but his own servants and sheep! Wherefore we will kneel and beseech Him, and perchance a miracle may fall like manna."

He looked smilingly about him, then, pressing his Bible closely, went on to other emigrants.... Later in the morning all upon the Silver Queen were drawn together to make petition for a prospering wind. All save the sick were there. Giles and John Allen stood with the others, knelt with the others. "Have we not a chronicle of Thy deeds," prayed Master Evans. "Didst Thou not make a dry road through an ocean for a chosen people? Didst Thou not, at the Tower of Babel, in one hour shake one language into all the tongues that are heard upon the earth? Didst Thou not enable Noah to bring into the Ark in pairs all the beasts of this whole earth? Didst Thou not turn a woman into a pillar of salt, and give powers of speech to an ass, and preserve three men unsinged in a fiery furnace? Didst Thou not direct the dew on the one night to moisten only the fleece of Gideon and not any of the earth besides, and on the next night to glisten over the face of the | | 335 earth, but to leave the fleece unmoistened? And are not we thy servants even as were Gideon and Lot and Noah?..."

The calm held. A sky of brass, an oily sea, heat and heat, and now more sickness, and now an uneasy whisper as to the store of water! The whisper grew, for the ship lay still, day after day, as though she had never moved nor ever would do so. Panic terror came and hovered near the Silver Queen. Captain Bard fell ill, lay in fever and delirium.... The mate took command—no second Captain Bard, but a frightened man himself. There was aboard a half-crazed fellow who began to talk of Ill-Luck. "The ship hath Ill-Luck. Who brought it aboard? Seek it out and tie it to the mast and shoot it with your arquebuse! Then, mayhap, the wind will blow." He laughed and mouthed of Ill-Luck, until crew and passengers all but saw a shadowy figure. Time crawled by, and the calm held and the panic grew.

There came an hour when the bolt fell, foreseen by Aderhold. Before it ran a whisper; then there fell a pause and an ominous quiet; then burst the voices, fast and thick. It was afternoon, the sun not far from the horizon, the sea red glass. Aderhold came up on deck from the captain's cabin. He looked about him and saw a crowd drawn together. Out of it issued a loud voice. "Ill-Luck? What marvel there is ill-luck?" Noise mounted. The half-crazed fellow suddenly began to shrill out, "Ill-Luck! Ill- | | 336 Luck! There she sits!" He burst from the throng and pointed with his finger. Away from the stir, on a great coil of rope near a slung boat, there sat, looking out to sea, John Allen.

The mate, with him several of the more authoritative adventurers and also Master Evans, came out of the state cabin. "What's all this? What has happened?"

A man of the wilder sort aboard, a ruffler and gamester, was pushed forward by the swarm. "My masters, there's one aboard named George Dragon who, being somewhat drunk, hath let drop news that we hold hath a bearing upon this ship's poor fortune! He saith that we carry escaped prisoners—runaways from the King's justice—rebels, too, to religion—"

"Ill Luck! Ill Luck! There sits Ill Luck!" cried the half-crazed one, and pointed again.

The swarm began to speak with a general voice. "And we say that we won't get a wind, but will lie here until water is gone and we die of thirst and rot and sink.... If we've got men aboard who are bringing misfortune on us.... Twelve days lying here and not a breath! The captain ill and twenty men besides, and the water low.... There's Scripture for it.... What's the good of praying for a wind, if all the time we're harbouring his foes?... Held here, as though we were nailed to the sea floor, and the water low! The ship's cursed.... We want George Dragon made to tell their names—"

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Suddenly George Dragon himself was among them—red-faced and wry-mouthed, but to-day thick-tongued also and stumbling. He looked about him wildly. "What's all this chattering? Talking like monkeys!—Waked me up—but I won and he paid—good stuff—" He saw Aderhold and lurched toward him. When he was near he spoke and imagined that none else could hear him. " Don't look so grimly upon me, Master Aderhold!" he said. " I've dropped not a word, as I told you I would n't. 'Zooks! I'm not one to peach—"

Aderhold! With one sharp sound the name ran through the swarm. "Not Allen!—Aderhold...." There were those here from that port town and the surrounding country,—those who had heard that name before. A man cried out, "Aderhold! That was the sorcerer who was to be burned!" Another: "They escaped—The sorcerer and apostate and the witch Joan Heron—"

"Ill Luck! Ill Luck! "cried the Bedlamite. "There she stands!"

John Allen had risen from the coil of rope and stood against the slung boat. The throng swung its body that way, hung suspended one long moment, open-mouthed, wide-eyed, then with a roaring cry flung itself across the space between. Aderhold reached her side, but the throng came, too, hurled him down and laid hands upon her. One clutched her shirt and jerkin and tore them across. She stood a woman revealed.

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"The witch! The witch!" they roared and struck her to the deck.

The mate was not the man that was the captain, but he knew what the captain would do, and where he was able he copied. The few superior colonists were not superior to witch-fear, but they had a preference for orderly judgement and execution. Master Evans was of a timid and gentle nature and abhorred with his bodily eyes to see violence done. He believed devoutly that in the interests of holiness witches, infidels, and sorcerers must be put to death, but he would not willingly himself behold the act which his religion approved. There were others aboard amenable to discipline, and bold enough to escape panic over mere delay. The sorcerer and the witch were drawn from the hands of the more en-raged. Their arms were bound across; they were thrust into the ship's dungeon. With them went Humphrey Lantern, sober enough now—poor wry-mouthed man!... In the state cabin there was held a council. "Keep the wretches close under hatches until Virginia is reached," said the cooler sense. "Then let the officers of the settlement hang them, on dry land and after solemn judgement. Or let them be prisoned in Jamestown until a ship is sailing home, taken back to England, and hanged there. If, as may well be the case, the Silver Queen hath been cursed for their sakes, surely now that they are ironed there below, and their doom certain in the end, the Almighty will lift the curse! At least, wait | | 339 and see if the calm be not broken." Within the cabin and without were malcontents, but the soberer counsel prevailed. The mate agreed to keep the crew from mutiny, the moderate-minded adventurers to tame the wilder, more frightened and impatient spirits.... That very night the calm vanished.

The calm vanished in a wild uprush of clouds and stir of the elements. The heat and savour of brass, the stillness of death, the amazing blue of the sky, the splashed red of sunrise and sunset went away. In their place came darkness and a roaring wind. At first they went under much canvas; it was a drunken delight to feel the spray, to see the crowned woman drink the foam, to hear the whistling and the creaking, to know motion again. But presently they took in canvas.... Twenty-four hours after the first hot puff of air, they were being pushed, bare-masted, as by a giant's hand over a sea that ran in mountains. The sky was black-purple, torn by lightnings, the rain fell with a hissing fury, the wind howled now, howled too loudly!

As the calm would not break, so now the storm would not break. It roared and howled and the water curved and broke over the decks of the Silver Queen. A mast went, the ship listed, there arose a cry. The rain and lightning and thunder ceased, but never the wind and the furious sea and the darkened sky. The Silver Queen was beaten from wave to wave, now smothered in the hollow, now rising dizzily to the moving summit. The waves combed over | | 340 her, they struck her as with hammers, her seamen cried out that there was sprung a leak, it came to be seen that she might not live. The panic of the calm gave way to that of the storm.

And now they cried out wildly that the voyage was cursed, and that God Almighty who had plagued Israel for Achan's sin was plaguing them for that they kept aboard most vile offenders and rebels such as these! Those that were still for delay kept quarter yet a little longer, but while the wind somewhat lessened, the leak gained, and panic attacked them too. The captain lay ill and out of his head, the mate was no stronger than they who wished clearance made. In a black and wild morning, the livid sky dragging toward them, the sea running high, they lowered a boat and placed in it Aderhold and Joan and Humphrey Lantern. They might, perhaps, have held the last with them, carrying him in irons to Virginia, but when he found what was toward he cursed them so horribly that no wizard could have thought of worse imprecations. They shivered and thrust him into the boat, where he knelt and continued his raving. "Hush!" said Aderhold. "Let us die quietly."

The sailors loosed the small boat and pushed it outward from the Silver Queen. It fell astern, the black water widened between. The ship, mad to get on, to put distance between her and the curse, flung out what sail the tempest would let her carry. It made but a slight pinion, but yet wing enough to | | 341 take her from that speck upon the ocean, the boat she had set adrift.... Not she had set adrift, but Ignorance, Fear and Superstition, their compound, Cruelty, and their blind Prætorian, Brute Use of Brute Force. There had been one pale ray of something else. Master Evans had insisted that there be put in the boat a small cask of water and a portion of ship's bread.

The Silver Queen hurried, hurried over the wild and heaving sea, beneath a low sky as grey as iron. The many gazing still lost at last all sight of the open boat. It faded into the moving air, or it was drawn into the sea, they knew not which. But it was gone, and they made bold to hope that now God would cease to plague them.

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