THE WITCH'S DAUGHTERcirca 1890
By Mary Eleanor Wilkins (Freeman) (1852-1930)
It was well for old Elma Franklin that Cotton Mather had passed to either the heaven or hell in which he believed; it was well that the Salem witchcraft days were over, although not so long ago, or it would have fared ill with her. As it was, she was shunned, and at the same time cringed to. People feared to fear her. Witches were no longer accused in court, and put to torture and death, but human superstitions die hard. The heads thereof may be cut off, but their noxious bodies of fear and suspicions writhe long. People in that little New England village, which was as stiff and unyielding as its own poplar-trees which sentinelled so many of its houses, knew nothing of that making of horns which averts the evil eye. They shuddered upon their orthodox heights at the idea of the sign of the cross, but many would have fain taken refuge therein for the easing of their unquiet imaginations when they dwelt upon old Elma Franklin. Many a woman whispered to another under promise of strict secrecy that she was sure that Elma bore upon her lean, withered body the witch-sign; many a man, when he told his neighbor of the death of his cow or horse, nodded furtively toward old Elma's dwelling. In truth, old Elma's appearance alone, had it been only a few years ago, would have condemned her. Lean was she, and withered in a hard brown fashion like old leather. Her eyes were of a blue so bright that people said they felt like swooning before their glance; and what right had a woman, so old and wrinkled, with a head of golden hair like a young girl's? Her own hair, too, and she would wear no wig like other decent women of less than her age. And what right had she with that flower-like daughter Daphne?
Young creatures like Daphne are not born of women like Elma Franklin, who must have been old sixteen years agone. Daphne was sixteen. Daphne had a Greek name and Greek beauty. She was very small, but very perfect, and finished like a ivory statue whose sculptor had toiled for his own immortality. Daphne had golden hair like her mother's, but it waved in a fashion past finding out over her little ears, whose tips showed below like the pointed petals of pink roses, and her chin and cheeks curved as clearly as a rose, and her nose made a rapture of her profile, and her neck was long and slowly turning, and her eyes were not blue like her mother's, but sweet and dark, and gently regardant, and her hands were as white and smooth as lilies, whereas hands had never been seen so knotted and wickedly veined as if with unholy clawing as her mother's.
Daphne led however, as lonely a life as her mother. People were afraid. Dark stories, vile stories, were whispered among that pitiless, bigoted people. Old Elma and Daphne lived alone in their poor little cottage, although in the midst of fertile fields, and they fed on the milk of their two cows, and the eggs of their chickens, and the vegetables of their garden, and the honey of their bees. Old Elma hived them when they swarmed with never any protection for that strange face and those hands of hers, and people said the bees were of an evil breed, and familiars of old Elma's, and durst not sting her. Young men sometimes cast eyes askance at Daphne, but turned away, and old Elma knew the reason why, and she hated them; for hatred prospered in her heart, coming as she did of a strong and fierce race. Elma combed her daughter's wonderful golden locks, and dressed her in fine stuff made of a store which she had in a great carved chest in the garret, and would have had the girl go to meeting where she could be seen and admired; but Daphne went once, and was ever after afraid to venture, because of the black looks cast upon her, which seemed to sear her gentle heart, for the girl was so gentle that she seemed to have no voice of insistence for her own rights. When her mother chid her, saying, with the disappointment of a great love, that she had with her own hands fashioned her wonderful gown of red shot with golden threads and embroidered with silver flowers, and had wrought with fine needlework her lace kerchief and her mitts and her scarf, and that it was a shame that she must needs, with all this goodly apparel, slink beside her own hearth and be seen of no one, the girl only kissed her mother on her leathery brown cheek, and smiled like an angel. Daphne was a maiden of few words, and that would have enticed lovers had it not been for her mother. However, at last came Harry Edgelake, and he was bolder than the rest, and the moment he set eyes upon the girl clad in green with a rose in her hair and a rose at her breast, spinning in a cool shadow at her mother's door, his heart melted, and he swore that he would wed her, came she of a whole witch-tribe. But Harry had more than he recked at first to deal with in the way of opposition. He came of a long line of eminent ministers of the Word, and his grandfather and father still survived, and were of the Cotton Mather strain. Although they talked none, they would, if the good old days had endured, have had old Elma up before the judges; for all the cattle in the precinct, and all the poor crops, and every thunder tempest and lightning stroke, and all strange noises they laid at her door, nodding at each other and whispering.
Therefore when it came to their ears that Harry, who had just come home from Harvard, and was to be, had he a call, a minister of the Word, like themselves, had been seen standing and chatting by the hour beside the witch's daughter as she spun in the shade with her golden head shining out in it like a star, he was sternly reasoned with. And when he heeded not the counsel of his elders, but was seen strolling down lovers' lane with the maid, great stress was laid to bear upon him, and he was sent away to Boston town, and Daphne watched and he came not, and old Elma watched the girl watch in vain, and her evil passions grew; for evil surely dwelt in her heart, as in most human hearts, and she had been sorely dealt with and badgered, and the girl was her one delight of life, and the girls' sorrow was her own magnified into the most cruel torture that a heart can bear and live.
And whether she were a witch or not, much brooding upon the suspicion with which people regarded her had made her uncertain of herself, and she owned a strange book of magic, over which she loved to pore when the cry of the hounds of her kind was in her ears, and she resolved one night, when a month had passed and she knew her daughter to be pining for her lover, that if she were indeed witch as they said, she would use witchcraft.
The moon was at the full, and the wide field behind her cottage, which had been shorn for hay for the cows, glittered like a silver shield, and upon the silver shield were little wheels also like silver woven by spiders for their prey, and strange lights of dew blazed out here and there like stars. And old Elma led her daughter out into the field, and Elma wore a sad-colored gown which made her passing like the passing of a shadow, and Daphne was all in white, which made her passing like that of a moonbeam; and the mother took her daughter by the arm, and she so loved her that she hurt her.
"Mother, you hurt me, you hurt me!" moaned Daphne, and directly the mother's grasp of the little fair arm was as if she touched a new-born babe.
"What aileth thee, sweetheart?" she whispered, but the girl only sobbed gently.
"It is for thy lover, and not a maid in the precinct so fair and good," said the mother, in her fierce old voice.
And Daphne sobbed again, and the mother gathered her in her arms.
"Sweetheart, thy mother will compel love for thee," she whispered, and the girl shrank away in fear, for there was something strange in her mother's voice.
"I want no witchery," she whispered.
"Nay, but this is good witchery, to call true love to true love."
"If love cannot be called else, I want not love at all."
"But, sweetheart, this is not black but white witchery."
"I want none, and besides —"
The girl said no more, but the mother knew that it was because of her that the lover had fled, and not because of lack of love.
"See, sweetheart," said old Elma, "I know a charm."
"I will have no charm, mother; I tell thee I will have no charm."
"Sweetheart, watch thy mother cross the field from east to west and from north to south, and criss-cross like the spiders' webs, and see if thou thinkest it harmful witchcraft."
"I will not, mother," said the girl, but she watched.
And old Elma crossed the field from east to west and from north to south, and crisscrossed like the spiders' webs, and ever after her trailed lines of brighter silver than the dew which lay up the field, until the whole was like a wonderful web, and in the midst shone a great silver light as if the moon had fallen there, although still in the sky.
Then came old Elma to her daughter, and her face in the strange light was fair and young. "Daughter, daughter," said the mother, "but follow the lines of light thy mother's feet have made and come to the central light, and thy lover shall be there."
But the daughter stood in her place, like a white lily whose roots none could stir save to her death. "I follow not, mother," she said. "It would be to his soul's undoing, and better I love his soul and its fair salvation than his body and his heart in this world."
And the mother was silent, for she truly knew not as to the spell whether it concerned the soul's salvation.
But she had still another spell, which she had learned from her strange book. "Then stay, daughter," said old Elma, and straightway she crossed the paths of light which she made, and they vanished, and the meadow became as before, but in the midst old Elma stood, and said strange words under her breath, and waved her arms, while her daughter watched her fearfully. And as she watched, Daphne saw spring up, in the meadow in the space over which her mother's long arms waved, a patch of white lilies, which gave out lights like no lilies of earth, and their wonderful scent came in her face. And her mother hurried back, and in her hurrying was like a black shadow passing over the meadow.
"And go to the patch of lilies, sweetheart," she said, "and in the time which it takes thee to reach them thy lover will have gone over the forests and the waters, and he will meet thee in the lilies."
But Daphne stood firm in her place. "I go not, mother," she said. "It would be to his dear soul's undoing, and better I love his soul and his soul's heaven than I love him and myself."
Then down lay old Elma upon the silver shield of the meadow like a black shadow at her daughter's feet.
"Then is there but one way left, sweetheart," came her voice from among the meadow grasses like the love-song of a stricken mother-bird. "There is but one way, sweet daughter of mine. Step thou over thy mother's body, darling, and cross to the patch of lilies, and I swear to thee, by the Christ and the Cross and all that the meeting-folk hold sacred, that thou shalt have thy lover, and his soul shall not miss heaven, neither his soul nor thine."
"I am thy mother."
And Daphne stood firm. "Better I love thee, mother," she said, "than heaven on earth with my lover; better I love thee than his weal or mine in this world, better than all save his dear soul."
"I tell thee, sweet, cross my body, and his soul and thy soul shall be safe."
"But thy life on earth, and thy soul?"
"I am thy mother."
"I will not go."
Then came a wail of despair from old Elma at her daughter's feet upon the silver shield of the meadow, and then she was raised up by young Harry Edgelake, and she stood with her leathern old face like an angel's for pure joy and forgetfulness of self. For her daughter stood in her lover's arms and his voice sounded like a song.
"Nothing on earth and nothing in heaven shall part me from thee, who hold my soul dearer than myself, and thy mother dearer than thyself, for, witch or no witch, thy mother has shown me thy angel in the meadow to-night," he said.
Old Elma stood watching them with her face of pure joy, and all the fierceness and the bitter grief of injury received from those whom she had not injured faded from her heart. She forgot the strange book which she had studied, she forgot her power of strange deeds, she forgot herself, and remembered nothing, nothing save her daughter and her love, and such bliss possessed her that she could stand no longer upon the silver shield of the meadow. She sank down slowly as a flower sinks when its time has come before the sun and the wind which have given it life, and she lay still at the feet of her daughter and the youth, and they stooped over her and they knew that she had been no witch, but a great lover.
From The Uncollected Stories of Mary Wilkins Freeman
(University Press of Mississippi: 1992)
Harper's Weekly 54 (10 Dec. 1920)
© Mary E Wilkins