The White Witch of Rosehall
Jagged nerves and a physical frame taxed by the experiences of the previous night, notwithstanding, Robert abided by his resolution when, after but a couple of hours’ sleep, he rose, shaved, bathed, and changed his clothes that same morning, for it was morning when he had thrown himself on his bed to think. At nine o’clock Rider made his appearance, and Robert informed him briefly what he intended to do. Rider did not look hopeful, but made no attempt to argue. He had some knowledge of human nature; he felt certain that it was better that the young man should be allowed to follow his own mind just now, whatever came of it.
At about ten o’clock Robert was at the Great House asking for Mrs. Palmer. He was informed that she was still in bed, but would be down presently. He waited in the drawing-room for nearly half an hour, when she came in, clothed daintily in white, and if she was paler than usual she seemed otherwise no worse for her adventure of the night before.
“Have you come to wish me a merry Christmas the day after?” she inquired, taking a seat near to him. “Or to what am I to attribute this visit?”
She was very calm, very collected, even formal; he gained an impression that she knew it was on no pacific mission he had come. He had an impression that she knew something of that reason and was prepared to have the matter out with him.
“No,” he said slowly, “it is not to wish you a merry Christmas. You had a strange Christmas, but hardly a merry one. I know that.”
“Yes. You made me a promise and broke it. You pledged me your word that you would try to rid that girl’s mind of her obsession, and instead of that you increased it. You have lied to me, Annie, and quite probably you have killed a human being. That was your work last night. I can’t conceive how it could have been merry work even for you; it was devilish work. I know all about it.”
“Yes. I saw you last night; I was there, just as you were there. You did not imagine that, did not expect it, did you? You thought you would tell me that you had done your best, and that I, being a fool, would believe you. But I know you now. There isn’t a word of truth in you.”
She sat very still, clenching and unclenching her hands, her lips set tight, her eyes wide with rage. Then, to his great surprise, instead of rising and driving him from her presence, she began to laugh. There was contempt in her laugh. He always seemed to catch that contemptuous note these days.
“So you were at the negro ceremony for taking off ghosts, and you saw me there too, and you say that I have killed this slut of yours! What a clever soul you are at making deductions. I didn’t see you, but what is to hinder me from saying that you have killed this girl? What did you see me do more than you did? Why, my dear man, I didn’t even arrive until the people had all run away. If you were there you surely must know that. I had a right to be there; that orgy was against the law. It was my duty to prevent or stop it. I suppose you know that.”
“I am not such a fool as you think,” he retorted sharply. “That bull——”
“Well, that bull,” she prompted.
“Was your work. It was intended to increase Millicent’s terror, to rob her of her last hope of freedom from the haunting of which she believes herself a victim.”
“Who told you that? For you did not arrive at that conclusion by yourself, did you? Who is this new “friend” of mine that puts ideas into your head, ideas which you are quite incapable of originating?”
He did not reply. She went on. “Perhaps I can guess. Ashman tells me that you are very friendly now with Rider, and Mr. Rider is a man who, when he is not drunk, believes he knows a lot. He goes at the end of this year; he would go today but that the law compels us to keep the full complement of white men required on the estate at a troublous time like this. Was Rider with you last night, Robert? Tell me what he thought of the result of his former years of preaching to the negroes: that was hardly a Christian service, was it?” She laughed again. “And they seemed to have called up a ghost. Well, I believe in ghosts, and all these sacrifices must be efficacious in raising them. Are you going to hold me responsible for the meeting last night?”
“I hold you responsible for Millicent’s condition,” he cried, “and I have no doubt that you went to her aunt’s house last Tuesday night to obeah her—that is the right word, and I am not going to beat about the bush any longer. You were seen to leave this place, a thing you had not done for many months. I saw you myself, and you had a boy with you. That boy is still here. Obeah, even if practised by a white woman, is against the law, and this time it means the life of a free fellow-creature. Unless by this evening Millicent is on the way to recovery, Mrs. Palmer, I am going to the magistrates of Montego Bay to lay a charge against you. And I shall go further. I shall urge that an inquiry be made into the death of your husbands. Takoo helped you there, I have heard it said, but Takoo is old; he loves his granddaughter, and if she dies he may think it worth while to turn king’s evidence; he can plead fear and intimidation, and they are not likely to do anything to him if it can be shown—as I have no doubt it can be—that you were the actual murderess. Besides, I understand that two of the murders were committed by yourself alone. You will be placed in the dock charged with murder and with practising obeah with intent to cause death. Once you are arrested, the slaves here, whom you terrorise, will turn against you. Evidence will be found. You see what you have to expect, don’t you? Now, will you agree to stop your evil work while there is time?”
Such a speech, spoken too in a grim and resolute manner, which left no doubt whatever that it was meant, Annie had never heard the like of in her life. Here was a charge deliberately brought against her by a white man, and for the first time she was told that men in authority in Montego Bay would hear it also, and she knew that if they did they might feel compelled to take some action. She looked long at Robert. Was this he who, but a couple of weeks before, was kissing her lips passionately, protesting his undying love for her, almost her slave? Panic seized her. Was her beauty waning, then, her power over men disappearing? For that would be the ultimate calamity! Or was it that this boy really loved the mulatto girl who had dared to become her rival? Her vanity would not admit that her beauty was less potent than before. This surely was another instance of a white man being bewitched by a native harpy, who, quite probably, wielded influence of a dangerous character through her grandfather’s agency. Annie firmly believed in such influences.
It was clear. Here was a threat and challenge, and if she yielded Millicent must be victorious. The girl would have Robert; she had no doubt of that. He might say no, might believe what he said, but he was not as steadfast as he thought he was, and Millicent would have him in the end and be able to mock at Annie Palmer. And she, Annie Palmer, she would never give him up; he must be hers or——Better he were dead than the lover of a nigger girl! If she must go without him, so must every other woman—Millicent or any other.
She bent over, so that she seemed huddled up on the sofa, and her eyes were fixed on the floor. She had tried persuasion, appeal, fascination. She had other and different weapons. Would they assist her? At least they could be tried. They must be, for her situation was desperate.
“I love you and you have threatened me,” she said softly. “You have charged me with murder, and have promised to denounce me to the magistrates. Are you not afraid?”
“Afraid of what?”
“No; you cannot harm me. I am not a superstitious Jamaica woman.”
“You are not. But you saw what the others saw last night, didn’t you? And you believe that I called it up from its natural dwelling-place. You are right; I did, I sent it there on purpose; it obeyed my will. And you, white man though you are, educated man though you are, you too saw it and trembled, and had I decreed that it should appear in your own room at dead of night, it would have been there, Robert Rutherford. It will be there tonight if I will it.”
He laughed harshly. “I know too much to take you seriously,” he said. “Your spectral bulls and horses are nothing real; merely something you think up, and it seems that you must be on the spot before they can be seen. They are visions to frighten negroes and children. Tell what you have said to your slaves and not to me: you cannot frighten me.”
“No? One of my husbands said as much to me once. He is dead.”
“You killed him.”
“Let us agree that that is so. I can kill others, Mr. Rutherford.”
“Only if they are in your power; but, remember, I am not. And perhaps the men you killed were never sufficiently on their guard. You are a woman, Mrs. Palmer, and I hate to speak as I do to you, but it must be done. You know I mean what I say. If a change for the better has not taken place in that young woman’s condition by this evening, tomorrow I go to the authorities with my story.”
She sprang up, standing close to him with flashing eyes and trembling lips.
“Go!” she cried. “This comes of loving you, worshipping you, giving myself to you, offering to you everything I possess. Go! Tell your story. You will have cause to do so, for your woman dies! Do you hear? She dies! And God Himself could not save her. Tell your story and see what comes of it. The magistrates have trouble enough just now with threats of a slave rebellion in this parish. They will have plenty of time to attend to you! They will ask you for evidence, and you will produce a well-known obeahman whose granddaughter you have made your mistress and who you will say was bewitched by me through jealousy. A fine tale that will make, especially when told by a white man against a white woman. You fool! All evidence against me is buried these many years in my husbands’ graves, and if you, a stranger here, or Rider, a drunken unfrocked clergyman, were to accuse me of obeah you would merely become the laughing stock of the country. The white people here still have some regard for their own class and reputation; they will know how to take your charges.”
“We’ll see, Mrs. Palmer. So you will do nothing for Millicent?”
“That is your last word?”
“Do you wish me to call some slaves to put you out of this house?”
“I wish I had never seen you,” he cried bitterly.
“And I—I hate the very day I saw you! Only a mean coward would have dared to talk to me, a woman, as you have done. Only something less than a man would have left me for a thing such as you have selected. And if it will hurt you more to know that you are the real cause of her death, I tell you so now. Had you had nothing to do with her she could have lived until she withered so far as I was concerned. But even while you were pretending to love me, pretending that you were mine only, you had her with you, chattered to her about me, mixed my name in filthy conversations with her! Forgive that? What do you imagine I am? Forgive! I have only just begun; I am by no means near the end yet. Think of that when you go to her funeral!”
She was raging now; he wondered if she were quite sane. She had let herself go—her fury was uncontrollable. She took no care to keep her voice in restraint; she was storming. He caught up his hat hurriedly and strode out of the room. He rushed down the front steps, threw himself upon his horse, and rode away.