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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A FEW miles in length, fewer in breadth, the island lay in a subtropic clime. During its winter all the air was neither cold nor hot, but of a happy in-between and suave perfection. Its summer brought strong heat and at times wild tempests of rain and wind, thunder and lightning. For the most part the land rose but a little way above the sea, a shallow soil with a coral base. Out of this mould sprang a forest of eternal greenness. Once there had been a number of villages, each in its small clearing, but one by one they had been destroyed and the clearings had gone back to the forest.

This one larger village had outlasted. Dwindling year by year, before it, at no great term, death and absorption, when all the island would be desert, it yet showed a number of irregularly placed, circular huts woven of branch and reed and thatched with palm. To this village Joan and Aderhold were swept together with the escaped slaves, the returned exiles. Besides the tenanted huts there were others from which the last of the occupants had died, but which were not yet fallen to the earth and become a part of the forest floor. Joan and Aderhold were given one of these abodes standing under tamarind | | 352 and palm, and here food was brought them. All the village was in commotion, restless and excited, for seldom and most seldom in all the years did any one come back. . . . When night fell there ensued feasting and revelry, a strange picture-dance, performed by men and women, long recitatives wherein some onorous voice told of this people's woes, of their palmy days, and how the white men came in the time of their fathers, and they took them for gods and they proved themselves not so—not gods but devils! The torrent expression of wrongs flowed on. Sharp cries and wailings came from the dusky figures seated in an ellipse about the narrator. Eyes looked angrily across to where the white man and woman sat and watched.

Among the Indians of the sailboat had been an old man with a finer, more intelligent face than was to be found among his fellows. It was he, principally, who had talked with the castaways. Now, on land, he constituted himself their advocate and protector. He had been, it seemed, the chief man of a vanished village, and this present village, being without a strong man, looked to him with deference. Now he rose and spoke and the threatening looks faded. These Indians were not of a fierce and cruel temper—and the two strangers were not Spanish, but came from a tribe whom the Spanish fought. . . . Danger to the two from their hosts or captors passed away.

The night went by in noise and feasting. With the dawn the village sank into sleep. The home-coming | | 353 ones needed, after long adventure and strain, rest and repose, while the friends and kindred at home were used to swift and calm descendings to immobility and profound sleep. Within and without the tent-like huts lay the dusky, well-shaped forms, almost bare, still as death, lying as though they had been shot down by invisible arrows. The projecting palm thatch, the overhanging, thick foliage, kept out the fierce sun, made a green and brown gloom.

Joan and Aderhold slept, too. For them the immediate need was health again, strength again, energy in which to base the wonderful flower of life. They lay like children near each other, and slept the livelong day. When, in the last bright light, they waked, there was cassava bread, and tropic fruit and water from a neighbouring spring. They ate and drank and talked a little, about indifferent things—only nothing now was indifferent, but rich and significant. But it was as though they would hold away from them for a little while their deeper bliss; would not speak of that until they could speak in health, with glow and vigour and beauty and power! About them the village half waked, half slept. They heard women's and children's voices, but dreamily. The woods, that had been very still during the heat of the day, were now as murmurous as rapids of a stream. All manner of winged life made a continuous sound. Joan and Aderhold rested their heads again upon the woven palm mat and slept the deep night through.

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With the second morning the Indian village resumed its normal process of existing. The women practised a kind of embryonic agriculture. The men hunted not at all, though they trapped birds; but they fished, pushing out into the turquoise sea in canoes hollowed from tree-trunks. The women plaited baskets, and cut and dried gourds large and small. They had cotton, and they knew how to weave it into the scant clothing needed in such a clime. They scraped the cassava root into meal and made bread, and gathered and brought in the staple fruits. In the village were to be found in some slight number and variety matters not of savage make. During the more than a hundred years since the great Genoese and his Spanish sailors had come upon this group, such things had drifted here, as it were, upon the tide and the winds. Thus there were to be seen several cutlasses and daggers, together with a rusted Andrea Ferrara, a great iron pot, and smaller utensils, a sea-chest, a broken compass, a Spanish short mantle and hat and feather, some piece of furnishing from a church, a drinking-cup, a length of iron chain. But nothing had been left, or had been traded for with Indians of other villages, for a long, long time. The islands were desert and forgotten . . . except that now of late sea-robbers and pirates were, for that very reason, taking as anchorage, refuges, and bases of operation, the intricate channels and well-concealed harbours. But no pirate ship had found as yet this inward-lying island. It | | 355 rested upon the sea as if forgotten or lost or inaccessible, and its fading people knew at least a still and not ungentle autumn.

The old Indian came this morning to visit Aderhold and Joan. Others had been before him; they had held, perforce, a kind of levee. The children were not more curious, nor simpler in their expression of curiosity, than were the men and women. They had no language in common with the castaways but that of gesture, but they made this answer. The torn, sunfaded clothing of the two, the fineness and tint of their hair, the colour of their skin, Joan's grey eyes, the absurd sound of their speech at which the Indians laughed heartily—every physical trait was of interest. But as with children attention went little further than that and was quick to flag. The levee dispersed.

But the old man's interest went beyond eyes and hair and a fair skin. He could speak in Spanish, too, and Aderhold could answer. He was as curious as the others, but his curiosity had a wider mental range. The strangers' country and its nature—their rank there—why they left it—had their ship utterly perished in the hurricane—these and other questions he asked, with his fine, old, chieftain, shrewd, not unhumorous face. Aderhold answered with as much frankness as was possible. The old chief listened, nodded, said briefly that he had heard men in the great island speak of those other white men, the English, and how they fought like devils. "But | | 356 devils' devil not what I call devil," said the chief. "Devils' god what I call devil."

He wished to know if the English were not coming to fight the Spanish, and his eyes lit up. "Then come rest here. Englishmen would n't stamp foot upon us—eh?" He observed that the hut was old and falling down. "Not good place. Too much tree—too much other houses all around. I like place see the water—night and morning. Sit and think, think where it ends." He offered to have them a house built. "Do it in one day. When you like it you look, say where."

Presently he gazed at them thoughtfully, and held up two fingers. "Sister and brother?"

"No, not sister and brother. We are lovers."

"Ah, ah!" said the old chief. "I thought that, yonder in the boat.—What is her name—and your name?"

"Joan—and Gilbert."

The old man said them over, twice and thrice, pleased at mastering the strange sounds. "Joan—Gilbert. Joan—Gilbert." At last he went away, but that was the beginning of a long and staunch friendship.

The day passed, the night. Another day dawned and ran onward to an afternoon marvellously fair. The season of hurricanes and great heat was passing; the air was growing temperate, life-giving. This day had been jewel-clear, with a tonic, blowing wind, strong and warm. The narrow shore-line of wave- | | 357 worn rock and coralline sand lay only a little way from the village. In the latter occurred a continual, sleepy oscillation of its particles, talk and encounter, and privacy had not been invented. Joan and Aderhold, fairly as strong now as on that night when with Gervaise and Lantern they broke prison, went this afternoon down to the sea.

It stretched before them, the great matrix from which the life of the land had broken, the ancient habitat. They left the village behind; a point of woodland came between them and it. Now there was only the ocean, the narrow shore, the lift of palms and many another tropic tree, and the arch of the deep blue sky. The tide was coming in. They sat upon a ledge of coral rock and watched it. The water, beyond the foam of the breaking rollers, seemed of an intenser hue than the sky itself—and calm, calm—with never a sail, never a sail.

"We may live here and die here—an old man and woman," said Joan: "die together."

"I am thirty-four years old," said Aderhold. "I will have to die before you."

"No. I will die a little sooner than I might."

"No! I will grow younger—"

"We talk nonsense," said Joan. "We sit here, as young and as old each as the other! And we shall die together."

A wave broke at their feet with a hollow sound. It fell on her last word, and it seemed to repeat it with a sullen depth, Together. It came to both that they | | 358 were to have died together, there in England, and that if ever they were retaken, as the great strangeness of life might permit, then certainly in all probability they would die together. That was one way in which the granting of their wish might be taken as assured. . . . But they saw no sail, and they saw that now the village never looked for a sail. . . . Safety might, indeed, have come to dwell with them. The thought of omen faded out.

The wind blew around them warm and strong. It was full tide, and about them foam and pearl, and the voice of mother sea. They sat with clasped hands on their coral ledge. It was coming back to them—it had come back to them—health and glow and colour and spring. Joan was fairer than she had been in Heron's cottage. First youth, youth of the senses, youth controlled and well-guided, but youth, revived like the phænix in Aderhold the scholar. He had seemed graver and older than he truly was. In him strength, activity, adventure, interest, will, and daring had early risen into the realm of the mind. There they had bourgeoned, pressed on, been light of step and high of heart. But the outward man had not been able to keep pace. Now a deep passion changed that. He looked as young as Joan; both looked immortal youth. Each put hands upon the other's shoulders, they drew together, they kissed. The voice of the ocean, and of the wind and of the forest spoke for them, and their own hearts spoke.

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The next day, when the old chief visited them, they went back to his proposal of a new house. The idea found him ready as a child. It was among his traits to be easily fired with the joy of building. He would speak to the chief men and the young men, and they would tell the women to do it at once. Where would Joan and Gilbert—he produced the names with pride—have it built?

They took him with them and showed him. Just without the village, so near that they could hear its murmur, yet so far that there was not oppression, in a rich grove, opening to a bit of sandy shore and a wide view of the azure sea. . . . The old chief gazed with appreciation, nodded, "Good! Go talk to chief men now." So much a man of his word was he that the next day saw the women bringing bundles of reeds and palm leaves for the thatching. Also young trees were cut for the posts. Aderhold and Joan studied the method, saw how they might extend, add a shed-like room or two, make a gallery for working under shade. The old chief and the others, too, from the great island, had ideas. The village was in a gay, a stimulated mood. It was a gala month—not every other day, nor any other day, did captive tribesmen come back, or castaways appear that were not Spanish, human driftwood making human interest! They built for the two from far away so large and good a house that they themselves marvelled at it. "Houses like that"—a woman said to Joan—"in houses like that our fathers live, eating bread | | 360 with the Great Spirit!" When the house was done, the village feasted, and an Indian, rising, addressed the castaways and said that now they were members and an adopted man and woman of the tribe, and that the village expected much good from them. "We show you how we do—you show us how your people do—show us how to kill Spaniards when they come!"

The next day Joan and Aderhold took possession of their house. When the crowd who had accompanied them to it was gone, and when the old chief was gone, and when there came the evening stir and murmur from the village, the two built their fire, and Joan made cakes of cassava bread and Aderhold brought water from a little spring that was their own. They had gold and russet fruit, and they sat and ate before their own door and were content. It was a bright and lovely evening, with a light upon the sea and the palm fronds slowly swinging. The voice of the village came not harshly, but with a certain mellow humming, and the voice of the sea upon the reef came not harshly either. When the meal was finished, they covered the embers of their fire so that it should not go out, then rose from their knees and hand in hand went the round of their domain. Here they would make a garden, here they would bring the water to a trough nearer the hut. Back at the door-way they looked within and saw their house fair and clean, yet fragrant of the green wood, with store of primitive household matters, with the sleeping-mats | | 361 spread. They turned and saw the great sea and the sky wide and deep. The evening wind, too, had arisen and caressed them, blowing richly and strongly. A tall palm tree rose from clean white sand. They sat beneath this while the stars came shining forth, and that of which they spoke was Love.

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