The last daylight and the firelight together illumined her face, and looking at her he thought it was the strongest face he had ever seen in a woman, almost too strong for beauty and yet beautiful. She had never told him her age, but he judged her to be now about forty, for she had not been young when he had known her first ten years ago. She had a square brown face with high cheekbones and determined chin. Her mouth was wide, with the lips set firmly. It was a gypsy face, but in her long-tailed dark eyes she showed her mixture of race, for they were not the changeful glittering black gypsy eyes, but soft and steady. Yet they had the strange penetrative quality of gypsy eyes, and her smile when with those she trusted had the joyous Romany frankness; for with her too guile was the result of oppression and not native to her character. She was tall and upright and carried herself superbly, if arrogantly.
Mother Skipton was neither old, toothless nor unclean. She was of medium height, thin and angular, with a yellowish skin stretched rather tightly over the fine bones of her face. Her straight hair was coiled neatly within a linen cap, and though her brown homespun gown was patched and worn it was clean and tidy. Froniga had steeled herself to confront evil, as she did with Piramus, yet she felt in this woman only a vast weariness. Nevertheless her face was not entirely pleasant. Though Mother Skipton was smiling her strained colourless lips were mirthless and between them the white teeth showed unpleasantly pointed. The almond-shaped long-tailed eyes, just the same shape as Froniga’s only not quite so large, compelled one to look into them deeper and deeper, yet they seemed dark pits of nothingness. Froniga felt that she was being sucked down into their nothingness and it took all her willpower to look away. She must say something.
commentary: So one of these women is the white witch, the other is a dark witch. Do the descriptions tell you which is which?
Earlier this year I read Elizabeth Goudge’s The Dean’s Watch: Hilary McKay suggested it would be a good addition to the lists Christine Poulson and I had drawn up of church-set books. I enjoyed it enormously, and was very impressed by the number of Goudge-fans who commented and emailed, told me how much they loved Goudge, and recommended other books.
I was left helpless before this book. I didn’t like it nearly so much as The Dean’s Watch. It rambles on and on through the English Civil War in the early 1640s: it has a large cast of characters and jumps around all over the place. One minute she’s telling you Romany lore and has characters talking in incomprehensible dialects, the next we are in the Royalist camp before a major battle. There are spies and traitors, there are strange relationships, there is some weird behaviour. But it never became boring, and just when you were coasting along, someone would act in an unexpected way, there would be something heartfelt and telling, a memorable event or saying. You could never dismiss it, or think it pedestrian. It is wild and weird.
There are people online who have read this book 10 times: I doubt I will read it again, but I am grudgingly glad to have read it once.
Top picture: Witch of the Woods by Julie Wolfthorn
Lower picture: Witch in the Swamp by Paul Ranson