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Title: Witch In-Grain
Author: Robert Murray Gilchrist
* A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook *
eBook No.: 0605691.txt
Language: English
Date first posted: August 2006
Date most recently updated: August 2006

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Witch In-Grain
Robert Murray Gilchrist


Of late Michal had been much engrossed in the reading of the black-
letter books that Philosopher Bale brought from France. As you know I
am no Latinist--though once she had been earnest in her desire to
instruct me; but the open air had ever greater charms for me than the
dry precincts of a library. So I grudged the time she spent apart, and
throughout the spring I would have been all day at her side, talking
such foolery as lovers use. But ever she must steal away and hide
herself amongst dead volumes.

Yesterday evening I crossed the Roods, and entered the garden, to find
the girl sitting under a yew-tree. Her face was haggard and her eyes
sunken: for the time it seemed as if many years had passed over her
head, but somehow the change had only added to her beauty. And I
marvelled greatly, but ere I could speak a huge bird, whose plumage
was as the brightest gold, fluttered out of her lap from under the
silken apron: and looking on her uncovered bosom I saw that his beak
had pierced her tender flesh. I cried aloud, and would have caught the
thing, but it rose slowly, laughing like a man, and, beating upwards,
passed out of sight in the trees. Then Michal drew long breaths, and
her youth came back in some measure. But she frowned, and said, 'What
is it, sweetheart? Why hast awakened me? I dreamed that I fed the
Dragon of the Hesperidean Garden.' Meanwhile, her gaze set on the
place whither the bird had flown.

'Thou hast chosen a filthy plaything,' I said. 'Tell me how came it
hither?'

She rose without reply, and kissed her hands to the gaudy wings, which
were nearing through the trees. Then, lifting up a great book that had
lain at her feet, she turned towards the house. But ere she had
reached the end of the path she stopped, and smiled with strange
subtlety.

'How camest thou hither, O satyr?' she cried. 'Even when the Dragon
slept, and the fruit hung naked to my touch... The gates fell to.'

Perplexed and sore adread, I followed to the hall; and found in the
herb garden the men struggling with an ancient woman--a foul crone,
brown and puckered as a rotten apple. At sight of Michal she thrust
out her hands, crying, 'Save me, mistress!' The girl cowered, and ran
up the steps and indoors. But for me, I questioned Simon, who stood
well out of reach of the wretch's nails, as to the wherefore of this
hurly-burly.

His underlings bound the crone and dragged her to the closet in the
banqueting gallery. Then, her squawling being stilled, Simon entreated
me to compel Michal to prick her arm. So I went down to the library,
and found my sweetheart sitting by the window, tranced with seeing
that goblin fowl go tumbling on the lawn.

My heart was full of terror and anguish. 'Dearest Michal,' I prayed,
'for the sake of our passion let me command. Here is a knife.' I took
a poniard from Sir Roger's stand of arms. 'Come with me now: I will
tell you all.'

Her gaze still shed her heart upon the popinjay; and when I took her
hand and drew her from the room, she strove hard to escape. In the
gallery I pressed her fingers round the haft, and knowing that the
witch was bound, flung open the door so that they faced each other.
But Mother Benmusk's eyes glared like fire, so that Michal was
withered up, and sank swooning into my arms. And a chuckle of disdain
leaped from the hag's ragged lips. Simon and the others came hurrying,
and when Michal had found her life, we begged her to cut into one of
those knotted arms. Yet she would none of it, but turned her face and
signed no--no--she would not. And as we strove to prevail with her,
word came that one of the Bishop's horses had cast a shoe in the
village, and that his lordship craved the hospitality of Ford, until
the smith had mended the mishap. Nigh at the heels of his message came
the divine, and having heard and pondered our tale, he would fain
speak with her.

I took her to the drawing-room, where at the sight of him she burst
into such a fit of laughter that the old man rose in fear and went
away.

'Surely it is an obsession,' he cried: 'nought can be done until the
witch takes back her spells!'

So I bade the servants carry Mother Benmusk to the mere, and cast her
in the muddy part thereof where her head would lie above water. That
was fifteen hours ago, but methinks I still hear her screams clanging
through the stagnant air. Never was hag so fierce and full of
strength!

All along the garden I saw a track of uprooted flowers. Amongst the
sedges the turmoil grew and grew till every heron fled. They threw her
in, and the whole mere seethed as if the floor of it were hell. For
full an hour she cursed us fearsomely: then, finding that every time
she neared the land the men thrust her back again, her spirit waxed
abject, and she fell to whimpering. Two hours before twelve she cried
that she would tell all she knew. So we landed her, and she was
loosened of her bonds and she mumbled in my ear: 'I swear by Satan
that I am innocent of this harm! I ha' none but paltry secrets. Go at
midnight to the heath and watch Baldus's tomb. There thou shalt find
all.'

The beldam tottered away, her bemired petticoats slapping her legs;
and I bade them let her rest in peace until I had certainly proved her
guilt. With this I returned to the house; but, finding that Michal had
retired for the night, I sat by the fire, waiting for the time to
pass. A dock struck the half before eleven, and I set out for King
Baldus's grave, whither, had not such a great matter been at stake, I
dared not have ventured after dark. I stole from the garden and
through the first copse. The moon lay against a brazen curtain; little
snail-like clouds were crawling underneath, and the horns of them
pricked her face.

As I neared the lane to the waste, a most unholy dawn broke behind the
fringe of pines, looping the boles with strings of grey-golden light.
Surely a figure, a shape, moved there? I ran. Another moment, and I
was in the midst of a host of weasels and hares and such-like
creatures, all flying from the precincts of the tomb. I quaked with
dread, and my hair stood upright. But I thrust on, parted the thorn
boughs, and looked up at the mound.

On the summit sat Michal, triumphing, invested with flames. And the
Shape approached, and wrapped her in his blackness.



THE END



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