The White Witch of Rosehall
A moment after, Annie was on the portico, every nerve tensed, despair in her heart. She saw the recklessness with which he dashed off towards his own quarters, read in that dare-devil pace his resolve to carry out his threat, to put everything at venture in his determination to punish her. He was lost to her; he had become a danger to her; and she was far from not realising what that danger meant. There had been too many rumours and suspicions about her; to a white man of his family and position—for he would keep nothing secret now, and would be vouched for by the rector of Montego Bay—the authorities would be obliged to listen. True, they would pay little attention to what he might say about Millicent. But he would speak of her dead husbands, demand why no investigation had been made into those three successive deaths. And there was always Takoo, and there were one or two others on the estate who knew something, perhaps too much. Yes; she was in real danger. And it was coming from a source from which she could never possibly have expected it.
She must take some action. Frustrated passion, injured vanity, a wild longing for vengeance all urged her to it, as well as the instinct of self-preservation. She must act and at once. Every hour was precious now. Besides, a man who had insulted her so, and for a native girl, ought not to escape unpunished.
She went to the rear of the house, called a boy, and ordered him to run over to Mr. Ashman’s and bid him come to her immediately. If Mr. Ashman were not at home the boy must find out where he was and bring him.
Ashman was soon with her. He had seen from a window of his room that Robert had ridden up to the Great House: had watched for some time and had noticed Robert dash away later on at a speed which suggested that some unpleasant scene had occurred between him and Annie. Ashman knew that he had been sent for because he was badly needed.
Annie wasted no time in preliminaries or equivocations. She came to the point at once; told her overseer with what she had been threatened, and how she had ordered Robert Rutherford out of her presence, never to return. She spoke quietly and coherently enough, but with the suppressed fury of a scorned woman who, to her face, had been told some damning truths.
“He can make it dangerous for me, John, and you know I have no friends in this country—except you. What am I to do?”
“So you have found out that I am your only friend, Annie? And you turn to me after the young man whom you thrust me aside for, and insulted me for, is about to try to get you on the gallows for the sake of a brown girl! What do you expect me to do?”
“I expect you to behave like a man, and not like a child,” she answered with some asperity. “To begin to fling things in my teeth, especially just now, is not a very chivalrous action. Will you help me or not?”
He was a little overawed by her downright mood and felt that this was no time for recriminations. She was in a desperate temper and a desperate plight; she might do something terribly risky on her own account without thinking clearly about the consequences.
“I will help you to the best of my ability,” he replied with decision; “but at the moment I don’t see what we are to do.”
“He might want to see me on a gallows, John, as you have said, but you don’t, do you?”
“God forbid!” exclaimed the usually impious John Ashman; “I have always loved you far more than he ever could, Annie.”
“If you are to continue to love me, John, if there is to be anything left of me to love, he must be prevented from carrying his lying tales to the magistrates. Remember, any sort of evidence might be considered enough to sacrifice me on.”
“I don’t think it would,” he said, and in this was honest; “but of course we don’t want any trouble, or open scandal, though it may be some time before any of us here will have time to think of purely personal matters. The slaves——”
“How do you think he can be stopped?”
He shook his head. “I can’t think, Annie. Unless you can help this girl.”
“Impossible. What can I do? Send to tell her that I am going to save her? She would not believe it. Takoo would not believe it. They both would say that I was setting a trap for them to hinder them from doing what they can on their own account. And I don’t want to do it either; I wouldn’t do it if I could. It would be like your going on your knees to beg forgiveness of a slave that had thrashed you in public. Could you tolerate the thought of that?”
The set of John Ashman’s jaw as she asked the question was answer sufficient. He knit his brows in an effort to think.
“John,” she whispered, “this whole parish is in an unsettled state, isn’t it?”
“Worse at this moment than it was two days ago,” he admitted. “I have been hearing some stories this morning. They won’t turn out to work on Wednesday, and I doubt if they will at all until they are forced. There may be plenty of fighting all over the country in another day or two.”
“And white men will be killed?”
“That is very likely,” he answered soberly.
“So if this Robert Rutherford was killed . . . ?”
“Why not?” she asked, speaking very low. “It may be his life or mine!”
“I couldn’t do it,” he replied positively. “I hate the man; but I could not do it. I am only an overseer; I would be found out; it would be my life for his.”
“I am not asking you to risk anything, but I think you would not like to see me in a court-room answering that man’s accusations, and perhaps, afterwards, on the gallows. Don’t you think of that?”
“It wouldn’t come to that,” he said; not wishing to face the ultimate hideous possibility, and feeling uncomfortable under the repetition of that ominous word “gallows.”
“It might; it probably would. See here; you have men under you who are pretty hard characters, haven’t you? And there will be trouble all around. If any of these men—you know what I mean, don’t you? No one would see him if he were careful, and you could find ways and means to help and protect him. Money would be no object. . . .”
He sat very quietly for quite a long while, thinking. He saw her plan. It was feasible, and need involve no risk for him. Yet, hard as he was, he did not like the idea of dooming a young white man to death. This seemed murder, and he shuddered at murder. The killing of a slave would not have appeared to him to be at all in a similar category.
“Have you any plans?” she asked at length.
“I don’t like it, Annie,” he confessed; “yet you must be protected. There is a man on this estate whom Rutherford has treated nastily ever since the first day he came; Rutherford kicked him, you remember, when he was going to punish Mary, and since then has shown that he has no use for him. I know he hates Rutherford, and he would stop at nothing. I expect he is planning some sort of mischief here now, but he is afraid of me. If he got his freedom and some money——”
“He can have both. How can it be arranged?”
“You would have to give him a receipt for a sum of money which he will say he paid you for his “free papers” a couple of weeks ago, the papers to be given to him in January next. That would be quite in order, and it would show he had arranged to buy his freedom some time ago. Afterwards, you could give him twenty pounds. That would be enough.”
“Promise him thirty when he has—you know. And give him ten at once, with the receipt you speak of. It’s worth it. You can depend on him?”
“I am sure I can.” Again Ashman paused to think heavily.
He resumed. “Today is Monday, and Rutherford can do nothing before Wednesday, for all the offices in the Bay are closed. On Wednesday he probably will leave for the Bay; but, anyway, our man can watch him and follow him wherever he goes. Pompey has been a hunter of wild hogs for a long time,” added Ashman grimly. “He is a splendid “shot”.”
A little shiver went through Annie; in a flash of imagination she pictured a malignant negro crouched behind a boulder or a clump of cane at some lonely spot by the wayside, heard a shot ring out, saw Robert pitch headlong from his horse and the slayer slinking away to refuge. No slave would track him now, none would interfere on behalf of a white man. This shot indeed might be considered their first blow for freedom, the signal that was to plunge the whole parish in blood.
She shivered, for the man fallen stricken from his horse was one whom she had loved, whom, in her mad, perverted way, she loved still. But it was his life or hers, and if he lived and Millicent lived—for she could not be sure that Millicent would die, for all her terror: if he lived and Millicent lived, he would be to this woman what he had been to her.
The thought hardened her heart.
“I am doing everything for you, Annie,” said John Ashman significantly as he rose to go.
“Your reward is myself, John,” she said with a bitter smile of self-pity, and he wondered what his ultimate recompense would be if in the future he offended her or she wearied of him.
* * * * *
When Ashman took his departure Annie remained where she was, sitting very still, listening to voices in her brain that had begun to speak with insistent distinctness. It was as if she were a stranger that these voices spoke to; she heard them from the outside, as it were. The die was cast, they said; Robert Rutherford was doomed. He would die, for the murderer would not miss; hate as well as cupidity would nerve his arm and direct his aim. Robert would die. And what after that? She loved him, she desired him passionately; in spite of the insults he had put upon her, of the indifference he now showed for her, she wanted him. And if he died she would never see him again; death was the one irremovable obstacle in anyone’s path.
He would not act if Millicent lived, and even if the girl lived, might she, Annie, not be able to win him back again? Was that altogether impossible? Without knowing that she did so she shook her head; she could not forgive Millicent; and even were she inclined to do so, that woman’s case was beyond her intervention now. She could set agencies of harm in motion; she could not control their effect. Perhaps if she had not interfered last night there would have been a chance; now everything was beyond her power, and what was to be must be. There was still just a possibility that Millicent might recover, and Robert would not move until he knew the worst. But if the girl recovered! Annie’s whole being revolted at the ignominy of having to watch, or even to imagine, Millicent’s flaunting triumph.
She thought she might be able to endure the successful rivalry of a woman of her own class, or even of her own race; the humiliation would not then be so complete. But she knew that that test would never be offered to her in this country. The white women were few, most of them were but ordinary looking; she knew she was considered to be the most beautiful woman in all Jamaica; she had nothing to fear from any other white woman. Nearly all of them had rivals among the coloured girls, but accepted the situation and so brought about no open rupture with their husbands. But she had no legal claim on Robert, and in any circumstances could tolerate no pretender to his affections. He must be hers only. Other white women might compromise with the existing conditions and make a sacrifice for some sort of external peace. She sneered at them: such pitiful weakness moved her to contempt. What a man like Ashman did could not matter to her; if she ceased to care for anyone his actions no longer concerned her. But if she still loved him she would yield nothing to those who challenged her hold; the struggle must continue to the end.
So the die was cast; she would not countermand the orders she had given to Ashman. Indeed, he would hold her in utter contempt if she did; he would look upon her as a timorous, hesitant, lovesick fool, she whom he had always regarded as a strong, imperious, self-reliant woman. She could never submit to such a degradation. She would despise herself. She would despise herself for having allowed herself to be despised.
But the future? Again the voices in her brain asked her questions, and they were about her future. What would life hold in store for her when Robert was gone? Was she to remain here, alone with a bore who, recently, she had been able just to tolerate but no more? Was Ashman to be her master, sharing a terrible secret with her, insisting upon being her lover? That too would be a humiliation unspeakable, a long-drawn-out torture; she did not see herself enduring it; she would not.
But Ashman would be on his guard. He cared for her, yes; she knew that; he cared because he could not help it; but he distrusted her and would not fail to watch her closely. She felt she would never be able to get rid of him, save by open dismissal, and then he might try to subdue her will by threats of exposure. That was a contingency which would have to be dealt with should it ever arise; worse by far would be the having to endure this man week after week, month after month, year after year. And hating him more and more. And longing for the one great love of her life, for the man whom she herself had just sentenced to his death.
She did not think that she could live through the future without Robert. She was no longer very young, and she wanted no man save him. She had known the awful agony of a boredom almost without relief in the months before Robert’s coming; it would be much worse in the years to come, a nightmare black and hideous as hell. Think as hard as she could she saw no way of escape. She had built a prison about her. Its impalpable wall would hold her faster than could walls of iron and stone.
A faint hope flickered through her brain; she uttered it aloud, as though in answer to the voices which were painting her future in the blackest hues. Something might happen to turn the whole course of events. The hired assassin might be hindered from carrying out his design at the last moment almost. Robert might shrink, when it came to the point, from denouncing her, even though Millicent should be dead. If these things happened—and life was full of such out-of-the-ordinary incidents—all might yet be well. She could defy Ashman then. Indeed, with Robert alive and Millicent dead, he would be submissive enough.
It was this slender hope, this possibility, that she clung to for a while; but this mood soon passed. Again she was plunged into despair. She walked to the sideboard (laden with the silver which her first husband had collected with such pride), and poured out for herself a glass of madeira, which she drank slowly. The wine heated her blood and brain; she felt stronger in will and in purpose. She had never been intoxicated in her life; but during the last year or so she had taken to wine as some sort of refuge from the ennui that had plagued her. She had no illusions about drinking. She knew that, strong-willed though she was, she might pass the limit of safety in drinking, might steadily drift into a habit of semi-intoxication, and would in her loneliness be all the more likely to do so than other women. She knew how drinking caught hold of and completely captured thousands of men, and some women too, in this country. They went to it for forgetfulness and solace. Often they found it a master and a terrible tyrant.
But there was no help for it. She must silence the doubts and the questionings in her mind, doubts and questionings the like of which had never tormented her before. She must stifle them, or her will might be weakened and she might become a very fool, not knowing what to do, not standing resolute as she had always done, and so winning her own admiration. She had set her course, had laid her plan; if she of her own will altered them now she might find herself in an awful predicament. If chance or fate chose to intervene, that she could not prevent. But of her own volition, of her own action, to act now so as to give Robert Rutherford every opportunity of bringing her to open disgrace, which would be worse than death to a woman of her spirit, and which might even send him to the arms of that daring, mulatto wretch if she happened by some miracle to recover—that would be madness on her part. Then indeed should she deserve any horror that might befall her. She cried aloud that she could face anything but that.
Deliberately she poured herself out another glass of the wine. She knew that she would not cease to turn to it for aid until this whole crisis was passed. She knew that she must not allow herself to think much about Robert, for then the poignant grief which gnawed at her heart might master her. She gazed with staring eyes into the glass she held in her hand. For the first time in her life she needed extraneous aid to steel her to her purpose.