The White Witch of Rosehall
On the chair upon which Robert had been sitting Annie seated herself. She was thinking moodily, her fingers tapping the wood, her eyes bent upon the floor. She had seen Robert’s face when Millicent had openly flung at her the charge of murder. Its expression had not been wholly reassuring.
She mastered her voice; she wished to speak calmly.
“You see,” she said, “it would have been better if you had decided to live up at the Great House. You would have escaped all this. These girls hang about the white men on the estates for what they can get out of them, and often they have their own nigger lovers at the same time. This one seems to have deceived you badly, Robert. She was Ashman’s mistress; he told me so himself.”
“He is quite capable of lying.”
“You are defending her, then?”
“There is nothing to defend. She is gone; you saw to that. But don’t you understand, Annie, how revolting all this is? You are a white woman, a lady, the mistress of Rosehall, and you come here and engage in a row with a coloured girl, a row that might have been a fight if her grandfather had not happened to come in when he did. You say that she is a common woman, and she says that——”
“I killed my husbands. Oh, yes, I heard her very distinctly. Well, and what do you say to her story?”
“It is all rubbish, of course; yet she will repeat it. She or her grandfather will probably tell other people, white people, about what happened tonight. There doesn’t seem to be much reticence in this country. Your name——”
“Is gone already,” interrupted Annie brutally. “Any number of people here know that you have stayed all night at the Great House with me; there is no secret about that. Why should you care? Why are you always dwelling on what other people may think or say?”
He gave no answer.
“You will soon get over your prudishness,” she smiled bitterly. “Indeed, considering the company you had tonight, and after having been with me last night, too, I should say that you were already the complete West Indian gentleman!” She sprang up, placed both her hands on his shoulders and looked searchingly into his face.
“Robert, don’t let us quarrel over a woman—especially a woman like that. You know I love you; I am yours entirely; you believe that, don’t you? This is my own little kingdom; we have no need to bother ourselves about outsiders. Come to the Great House with me, stay there; if you want me to marry you, I will, and as soon as you like. If you don’t want to get married, it doesn’t matter, so long as you are mine and I yours. You can be master here if you like. You will stick to me, won’t you, darling?”
“Yes,” he said, but without any great heartiness, “but I won’t live in the Great House, Annie.”
“And that girl will not come back to Rosehall,” she rapped out, her naturally high temper getting the better of the prudence with which she was endeavouring to regulate her words and conduct just then.
“She would be wise not to,” he answered dryly, and she winced. He was alluding, quite obviously, to Annie’s thirst for inflicting corporal punishment on others.
She changed the subject.
“We have a new book-keeper, Robert, I told you we were going to get one. You will see him tomorrow.”
“And I want you to come up to the Great House tomorrow for lunch, and we’ll talk over matters. You must not be hard in your judgment of me; remember, if I lost my temper tonight it was because of you. I could not bear to see that girl making some sort of claim on you. You don’t blame me for that, do you? It wouldn’t have mattered to me if I did not love you.”
He could not but be mollified by this; she was pleading now, not fighting, and there were actually tears in her eyes as she gazed at him.
“It is all right, Annie, don’t dwell upon it. Yes, I will come to the house tomorrow.”
“Good,” she cried. “Good night, Robert!”
She kissed him warmly; he took her to where her horse was standing; she leapt into the saddle easily and rode away. He returned to his room to think.
As his room-door closed behind him a man, who had been hidden in the shadows on the southern side of the building, came forth cautiously and made his way on foot towards the overseer’s quarters. Ashman had heard enough to know that his plan had failed. He had not calculated upon all the possibilities of failure; indeed, how could he have foreseen everything? After Millicent had left him that night he had hurried up to Mrs. Palmer and told her bluntly that the girl and Robert Rutherford were lovers. He had pretended jealous anger; he knew that that alone could be his excuse for going to her with the story. He had told her bluntly that Robert was her special protégé and therefore could protect Millicent on the estate, but that, for his part, he wished to forbid Millicent to come near the estate again, and would like to chastise her for deceiving him. He had suggested deep resentment that Robert should have taken both herself and Millicent from him. Then he had left, still in simulated anger, had ridden to within a furlong of Robert’s quarters, dismounted, and given his horse a slap on the buttock which had sent that animal cantering to its stables. On foot he had crept down quietly to the book-keepers’ house, intent upon learning all that should subsequently happen. For he knew Annie Palmer. He expected that, on that same night, without delay, she would bring matters to a crisis.
What he hoped was that she would surprise Robert with Millicent (as indeed she had done) and that Robert, not daring to oppose her, would allow the girl to be badly treated. Ashman, living mainly for his own advancement, of a naturally coarse disposition, and feeling confident that the opportunity of being Annie Palmer’s lover (and so virtually master of Rosehall) would outweigh any tender feeling that Robert might have for Millicent, had not imagined that the young man would try to aid the girl. Millicent would therefore feel the full effects of Mrs. Palmer’s wrath and vengeance, and would be sent ignominiously and in bitter pain and humiliation from Robert’s presence. Her grandfather would hear of it: Mr. Ashman had made up his mind that Takoo should, and Takoo would hold the young man at least partly responsible. He would hesitate to strike directly at Mrs. Palmer; everybody feared that lady, who in her turn despised others. But of Robert, Takoo would have no dread at all, and would injure him, thus avenging his granddaughter and at the same time hurting Mrs. Palmer. Ashman hoped that the old wizard and murderer—for no one doubted that Takoo was both—would poison Robert Rutherford before a week had elapsed. Thus a dangerous rival would be disposed of, and white men of the better sort, already suspicious of Rosehall and its mistress, would in the future come no nearer that property than its gate.
But Takoo, it now was clear, was watching over his grandchild; by a cursed mischance the old African had been on the spot during the stormy scene in Robert’s room. He had taken Millicent safely away; he must have noticed that Robert had endeavoured to help and befriend the girl. Takoo would not now move against the new book-keeper, whom he knew was guiltless of any wrong—or what Takoo would consider to be wrong—against Millicent. The plot had failed.
When Ashman got back to his house it was to find Mrs. Palmer awaiting him. He was surprised at this, but had a tale ready to account for his absence from home. To her query where he had been, since she had expected to find him at home, he replied that he had gone for a walk, as usual, to see that everything was fixed for the night. It was what he sometimes did, and Annie never suspected that there was any reason to doubt him.
“And why are you here?” he asked. “Anything important?”
“Yes.” She came to the point at once; she knew that in another few hours Ashman must hear of the encounter in the book-keeper’s room. Annie was too well acquainted with the customs of her estate and its people to doubt that there had been ears to hear and eyes to see what had passed; Burbridge’s housekeeper, she realised, must have been awakened by the sound of voices, if indeed she had been asleep. And there may have been others in the neighbourhood; you never could tell. Ashman would know. Just as well that he should hear about it all from her lips.
She told him briefly. “And your girl went off with her grandfather after speaking to me as no one ever did before. She doesn’t care a straw about me, John.”
“I can see that.”
“She ought to be punished for her impertinence, and worse, to me.”
“But how?” He was interested in her remark. He was not very quick-witted, but it struck him suddenly that, if Robert truly liked Millicent, as it seemed he did, anything done against her by Annie might drive the young man in anger and disgust away from Rosehall, a possibility which Annie in her offended pride and jealousy had not perceived, Ashman himself had learnt a lot about Robert’s character in the last hour or so.
“I don’t know how—yet. Perhaps you could say. But first of all we must find out where she is. She has left the estate, of course; she is out of it already. Can you find out where she is gone to?”
He did not wish to appear too eager. “If she has gone,” he said, “why do you want to follow her? Isn’t that a good riddance of bad rubbish?”
“And am I to rest content while that wretch spreads lies about me, and while everybody knows that she abused me to my face and was not punished? Besides—well, I have given you my reasons.”
But he finished her sentence in his mind: “Besides, my lover may seek her out and she may share him with me, and that I will not have at any cost.”
“I will try to find out where she is,” he said aloud; “but you have to be careful, Annie. You can do much as you like on Rosehall and on Palmyra, though even here, in these days, you have to be careful. Outside of the estates you run a great risk if you go beyond the law. The missionaries are very active now, and they force the magistrates to take action.”
“Are you, also, suggesting that I murder people?” she demanded harshly.
“I suggest nothing. I am only thinking of your safety. After all, you know that I love you, Annie.”
“And love yourself more,” she sneered, “not to mention the estate wenches. But don’t be afraid. There are more ways of hanging a dog besides putting a rope round its neck. I will show you something, John; I will show you that I have other means of dealing with these people than the whip and even death—it is death to them in another form, and I cannot be hurt by the law.” She was wrought up to the highest possible tension; her eyes were blazing; there was an evil look in them. “Call up some of your people,” she commanded, “on any pretext; send them outside, not too far. You’ll see.”
“What is it? What do you intend to do?” he demanded startled.
“Do what I say! Don’t argue!” she cried peremptorily; and he went outside and shouted for some people to come out. He thought, he said, that a cow had escaped from her pen and was roaming about the field near the house; that was the first excuse that came to his mind, and all the more readily, as cows were always breaking out.
Three or four men came tumbling out at the sound of his voice, and with them the Rev. Mr. Rider, the new book-keeper. They ran towards the field indicated, though no sound came from it. Annie Palmer stood on Ashman’s veranda staring towards the field. Suddenly Ashman gave a gasp of astonishment and horror.
At the same moment a terrified shriek burst from the men who had gone to search the field for the errant cow, and they came flying back, all except Mr. Rider. They rushed up to the veranda, their teeth chattering, their eyeballs gleaming white in the faint light of the moon. “The Horse,” they gasped, “The Three-footed Horse from Hell!”
And out yonder, glowing phosphorescently, loomed the figure of a gigantic horse, which seemed to have one leg in front and which loped slowly on, as though coming towards them, a horse like to the pale spectre described in the Apocalypse and ridden by Death, frightful to look upon, awe-inspiring, terrifying.
It stood out distinct, but made no sound. The frightened negroes shuddered abjectly and moaned. Even Ashman, who had turned pale, muttered blasphemies, as if that could protect him from whatever danger might threaten.
Then, in a flash, the apparition was gone.
Mrs. Palmer laughed softly. Leaning over the balustrade of the veranda she called out to the terrified slaves, “You see what you have to fear if you dare to forget yourselves? You have seen with your own eyes!”
“Send them back to their beds, John,” she continued, “they haven’t had a lesson like this since you have been here; but it was about time that they had one. They will tell others. Who is this man?”
She alluded to Rider, who was slowly coming towards them.
“Rider, the man we employed tonight.”
“The book-keeper? He seems very nonchalant.”
“He is probably drunk, or a fool. What was that thing out yonder, Annie?”
“You heard what the niggers said—the Three-footed Horse.”
“But I always believed that that was a foolish superstition,” protested Ashman, trembling slightly, in spite of his efforts at self-control. “I never believed that mad story.”
“You saw for yourself, didn’t you?”
“And you—you summoned it? You knew it would be there?”
“Yes; and now you know how I can deal with that wretched girl if only I find out where she is, if only I can bring her within my power; and, by God, I will do it!”
“Annie,” said John Ashman, and there was fear and revulsion in his voice, “they have said about here that you are a witch. I have never listened to that talk. But this, this—what does it mean? That thing that I saw out there came from hell, and you brought it!”
“I brought it,” she admitted, and there was mocking triumph in her tone; “and now you know more of me than even you did before. So be careful, John, and find that girl for me.”
“If Rutherford still sticks to her——” he began.
“So much the worse for him also!” she flung out savagely. “I am stronger than he or you or anyone else here. Begin your inquiries tomorrow.”
He took her down to her horse, and she rode away, right through the spot where the strange animal had shone and then disappeared. Ashman shuddered. He would not have gone alone into that field that night for any recompense; he was too shaken in nerve. It came into his mind that Rider alone had not seemed much perturbed. And he did not really think Rider was drunk or a fool. “Perhaps,” he thought, “it is because he is a man of God”—for again his queer respect for this dissolute priest asserted itself. He went to his sideboard and mixed himself a strong draught of rum and water.
Meantime Annie Palmer galloped home and in a very little while came to the Great House. Her servants knew her moods from the tones of her voice; hearing her call now they hastened out precipitately, nervous and apprehensive. She flung into the house and up the great stairs; arrived in her room, she threw open a front window from which she could survey the property down to the gate, and see in the distance the low small building in which Robert Rutherford lived. She half-leaned out, staring fixedly in that direction; her teeth bit into her lower lip, sobs of wild anger half choked her. She loved him. She cried aloud that she loved him, that he was the only man she had ever loved, and that he cared but little for her after all; was only taken with her as a child might be with a new toy, but was ready to desert her—she felt that in her heart. “But I won’t let him,” she gasped, “I won’t let him! He is mine, and that wretch shall not take him from me, nor Ashman prevent me from doing what I please. Ashman! I don’t trust him; he is working for himself. Let him be careful! That woman will die in a week, and no one will ever dare to say that I had a hand in it.”
She felt deathly weak. Her vitality was enormous, but she had taxed it greatly that night. She had admitted to Ashman that it was she who had evoked that pale, vast spectre, a giant horse with but one leg in front, the Three-footed Horse of a profoundly held Jamaican belief, which had been seen on Rosehall before, and which, some said, had only been seen when one of her husbands was about to die. It had been associated with her; it was always the herald of some terrible happening; its appearance had inevitably served to strengthen her hold on her sullen, bitterly-discontented slaves. It was not only by bodily fear that she held them, by dread of the whip and the iron chain, but by far more potent spiritual terrors, by the report, the conviction, that she could summon fiends from the Pit to work her will if she were minded to do so. And tonight she had done so; but the effort, and the emotional stress through which she had previously passed, had exhausted her. Slowly she sank by the window, in a dead faint, and when she came to herself it was dawn.
She had been through a desperate crisis, and her waking brought her no surcease of agony and apprehension. She had never had to fear a rival before; it was she who in the past had sickened of the men she loved, or thought she loved; and when weariness and distaste supervened, when an uncontrollable aversion asserted itself, she had succeeded in ridding herself of them. Ashman had no claims as a husband, his existence could not trammel her actions: he could not venture to exercise authority: that perhaps was why he was still alive; besides, he was very useful to her in practical affairs, far more so than her husbands had been. He had to cease being her lover when she willed it so; he understood that clearly. But she wanted love, what she considered love, and this boy, some six years her junior, fresh from England, tall, manly, handsome—her senses had thrilled at the sight of him, her blood had grown hot with desire for him; she felt that she would gladly, willingly, make any sacrifice for him—and he did not love her! Attracted, yes; fascinated, undoubtedly; but nothing more. She had seen this in his attitude of a few hours before; she would be much exercised to hold him for much longer now. The girl with the brown complexion and the defiant look, that granddaughter of the negro most feared in all the parish of St. James, had deliberately challenged her, Annie Palmer, and might yet draw her lover from her. So again must she strike, and this time with weapons that might not succeed with a white man and by means that must not easily be detected. Through fear and horror she must rid herself of this rival. But what if those instruments failed, as they might fail? As Annie threw herself upon her bed, in the dawning, for a few hours of rest, she vowed that if the means she proposed to use should not succeed, other and more material ways should be found to achieve her object, however great the risk might be.