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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CHAPTER XXVI
THE OPEN BOAT

THAT day and night they in the open boat merely lived to die. With each wave of a sea yet in storm Death overhung them, the foam atop gleaming down like a white skull. The boat rode that wave, and then Death rose on another. There seemed naught to do in life but to meet Death—a little candle left to go forth by. Death preoccupied them—it was so wide and massive, it came against them in such tourney shocks. "Now... No!—Then now... " But still the boat lived and the candle burned. When the dawn broke the waves were seen to be lessening in might.

That day the sea went down and the sky cleared. Sea and sky turned a marvel of blue, Indian, wondrous. There was a wind, steadily and quietly blowing, but it served them not who had no sail. All around—all around the intense sea spread to the horizon, and no sail showed and no land. The sun mounted and for all the moving air they felt its heat which increased. Heat and light—light—light....

The cask of water.... They found beside it a small drinking-cup of horn, and they agreed that each should drink this once filled each day. It was little, | | 343 but so they might keep Death at bay so many days. They also portioned out the ship's bread. Likewise they watched for a sail. They were now in seas where ships might be looked for; west and south must lie the islands held by Spain. Once two seabirds flew past them, and that would mean that land was not inconceivably far away. But they saw no land, and no sail was etched against the sapphire sky. Loneliness profound, and heat and light....

All was done that could be done to preserve life. It remained to live it.... But poor Humphrey Lantern, whom the other two tried to comfort, would not be comforted. He sat and bit his nails, full of remorse and horror, then passed through stages of anger to a melancholy, and thence to a dull indifference, silence, and abstraction. They could not rouse him. Aderhold spoke in vain of the Low Countries and the wars, and of all the good that they owed him, and of how they might yet live to remember these days not unkindly. Lantern, huddled in the bottom of the boat, looked at them blankly. His abused body sank more quickly than did theirs.... He had a knife, and at last one night, when they had been drifting long days and nights, he struck it into his heart. The body, swaying against Aderhold, roused him from uneasy sleep. His exclamation waked Joan; she put out her hand and raised it wet with blood. A moon so great and shining lit the night that they could see well enough what had been done. Lantern was dead. They laid him straight in the | | 344 bottom of the boat. Aderhold drew out and washed the knife, and then they sat beside the dead man until the moon paled in the vast rose-flush of dawn. Then, while sea and sky were so beauteous, they lifted the body; then, while they looked to the brightening east, let it leave their hands for the great deep. Wind and current bore the boat slowly onward and away. The two were now so weak that they lay still as after great and prolonged exertion.

The day burned to its height, flamed to its close. There came a sunset of supernal beauty, and then the pitying, brief twilight and the glory of the southern night. The coolness gave a little strength. Aderhold set the cup to the mouth of the cask and poured for each a shallow draught of water. They should not have drunk till morning, for their store was nearly gone. But with one mind they took this, to give them voice, to free them for a little from gross pain. When it was done they turned each to the other, came each to the other's arms.

Another dawn—the furnace of the day—sunset—the night. The wheel went round and they, bound to it, came again to dawn and then to strong light and heat. When they had drunk this morning, there remained of the water but one cupful more. They lay, hand clasping hand, in the bottom of the boat that now drifted on a waveless sea. Sometimes they murmured to each other, but for the most part they lay silent. There was now no outward beauty in the two. They lay withered, scorched, fleshless, | | 345 half-naked, human life at last gasp between the ocean and the sky. Within, all strength and beauty could summon only negatives. They did not complain, they did not curse, they did not despair, they did not hate. Within was a stillness as of a desert, with a low wind of life moving over it. The physical could not lift far into emotion, but what there was was love and pity. Emotion could hardly attain to thought, nor thought to intuition, but what there was knew still the splendour and terror and all things that we are. Day—eve—the night—the dawn—day. They measured out the last water in the cask and shared it justly between them. They lay side by side, his hand upon her breast, her hand upon his. The fierce heat, the fierce sunlight rose and reigned....

A crazy, undecked sailboat came out of the haze. It was returning from a great island south to a group of small islands lying northerly in these seas, and it held five or six Indians—not the fiercer, southern Caribs, but mild Lucayans. One spied a dot upon the waters and pointed it out. They drew slowly nearer in a light wind, and when they saw that it was a boat adrift, tacked and came up with it. A man leaned overboard, seized and drew it in, and with a rope fastened it to the stern of the larger craft. Uttering exclamations, they examined their prize. In the bottom of the boat lay a man and a woman in man's dress. They lay unconscious, wreathed in each other's arms, two parched and gaunt creatures | | 346 who had suffered the extremity of exposure, hunger, and thirst. The Indians thought that they were dead, and, indeed, they looked like death and terrible death. But when they were lifted and dragged into the larger boat, and when water was put between their blackened and shrivelled lips, there came a faint stir and a moaning breath.... The Indians had good store of water in cask and calabash; they gave it again from time to time, and they crumbled cassava bread and fed that too.... Joan and Aderhold turned back to the land of the living.

At first the Indians thought that they were Spanish, for they had no association with other white men. Association with the Spaniard had been cruel enough for them; they belonged to the disappearing remnant of a people swept by the thousands from their islands to the larger islands, enslaved, oppressed, extirpated. These in the boat were runaways from a hard master, who had stolen this boat and put out, crazy as it was, on what might seem a hopeless voyage. Did they pass through days and nights, and leagues and leagues of sea and go uncaptured by some Spanish craft, did they come at last to their own island, what would they find there? A desert, with, perhaps, a tiny cluster of palm-thatched huts, still clinging, looking for some landing party, looking to be swept away as had been their kith and kin—a perishing group, dejection, languor of life.... But homesickness drove them on; better a | | 347 death-bed with freedom than the peopled great island where they were slaves! They had felt the Spanish lash and the Spanish irons; they looked doubtfully enough upon the white man and woman, and it was perhaps a question whether now they would not pay back.... But when at last Aderhold spoke, it was in English. They did not know that tongue and they answered in altered and distorted Spanish. He had a little Spanish, and he made them understand briefly that the two had been in an English ship and that there had been a storm and that they were castaways. They were not Spanish, and they did not know the great island or any of the masters. They were English, whom the Spanish hated. That fact being weighed, the Indians turned friendly, laughed and stroked their hands in token of amity, then set apart for the two a great calabash of water, and gave them more cassava bread.

Joan and Aderhold ate and drank. The will to live was strong, for life had turned a rainbow, and a wild and beautiful forest, and a song of the high and the deep, and an intense pulsation. The two came swiftly up from Death's threshold. Before the boat came into sight of land the light was back in their sunken eyes and some strength in their frame.... The land seemed a low, island shore. The excited Indians gesticulated, spoke in their own tongue. Aderhold, questioning them, learned that it was the outermost of their island group, but not their own island to which they were bound. They saw pale | | 348 sand and verdure green as emerald; then the night came and covered all from sight. No light of torch or of cooking-fire pierced the darkness. The blank shores slipped past, the boat left them astern, and now again all around was the sea.... But though it was night there was no sleeping. The returning exiles were excited, restless, garrulous. The two learned that there were many islands and now almost no people. The people—the Indians beat their breasts—were gone now, almost all gone. For the masters sent men from the great islands to burn the villages and take the men and women and children and drive them aboard ships and carry them off to make poor slaves of them. They had done so when the oldest men were children, and when the oldest men's fathers were children. But now the masters did not come, for the men and women and children were all gone—all gone but a few, a few. The returned from long slavery did not know if these few were yet there, yet clinging to their island.

Night passed, dawn came, the wind blew them on. Now they saw islets and islands, but no craft upon the water, or sign of life. Then, in the afternoon, the Indians' lode-star lifted upon the horizon. They put their helm for it, a freshening wind filled their sail. Presently they saw it clear, a low island, here ivory white and here green as emerald. The Indians shouted and wept. They caressed one another in their own tongue, they gesticulated, they held out their arms to the nearing shore.

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The shore dilated. Reefs appeared to be warily avoided, and the water grew unearthly blue and clear. Green plumes of palm seemed to wave and beckon. Back from the narrow ivory beach, inland out of a break in the belt of green, rose a feather of smoke. The Indians when they saw it were as mad people. They leaped to their feet, they embraced one another, they laughed, they strained their bodies toward the land, and broke into a savage chant of home-coming.... Now they were in a tortuous channel between cays and the island. The island beach widened, and now human forms appeared—not many, and at first with a hesitant and fearful air; then, as they became assured that here was only one small sailboat, with a bolder advance, until at last they came down to the edge of the small bight to which the boat was heading. They were Indians like those in the boat, a mild and placable strain, dulled and weakened by the century-old huge wrong done them. They were but a handful. In the whole island there was now but one small village.

The boat glided past a fanged reef and came into a tiny crystal anchorage where the bright fish played below like coloured birds in the air. They lowered sail; they came as close as might be to the shelving land; the Indians leaped into the water and made ashore with loud cries and incoherent words. The islanders swept about them, surrounded them; there rose a wild, emotional questioning and greeting, laughing and crying.

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The infection spread to Joan and Aderhold. Behind them lay pain and horror, and pain and horror might again claim them. But now Time had spread for them a mighty reaction. It was so blessed to be alive!—they were so prepared to embrace and love life—every material thing seemed so transfused and brightly lit from within—they laughed themselves and felt in their eyes the happy dew.... They, too, must take to the water to come ashore. It was naught to them, the shallow bright flood. They crossed it as had done the Indians, and stepped upon the land.

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