The White Witch of Rosehall
An hour passed, and then he saw the mistress of the plantation returning. The sun was cruel now in the open, unsheltered landscape, although this was the cooler time of the year; but Mrs. Palmer did not seem to mind it. She rode easily with Ashman at her side. She was coming in Robert’s direction, but he kept his eyes fixed on the slaves who, aware of who was approaching, redoubled their efforts and began heaping cane into the wagons standing by the path. Not so had they toiled all that afternoon. The man on horseback, big and strong though he was, had for them nothing of the terror which the slim woman who was nearing them so evidently exercised.
“Is this the new book-keeper?”
The question was asked in a clear, musical, carrying voice, a voice which, though not lifted, could yet be heard some distance away, a voice of rich quality and of decisive, vibrant, exquisite tones. Robert lifted his head and stared in its direction.
It was as though an electric shock had passed through him. He found himself gazing into a pair of eyes which he thought the most wonderful he had ever seen. They were black and of a peculiar, penetrating brightness; they looked through you: gazing intently into them you became conscious of nothing else; they absorbed you. The brow above them, though partly hidden by the riding beaver, was broad and smooth, and smooth, glossy black hair covered the ears. The nose was slightly aquiline, suggesting strength of character, a disposition and a will and an ability to command; the mouth was small and full, the upper lip too full, the lower one a little blunt and hard. A fascinating mouth nevertheless, made for the luring of men; and under it was a rounded chin, well marked, definite, strong.
Her complexion was brilliant, her colouring indeed was part of the attractions of Annie Palmer and had not been affected by her rides in the sun of the West Indian tropics, probably because her horseback excursions were seldom taken in the bright sunlight. She sat upright on her horse; sitting thus, she appeared to be a mere girl, though her age was in reality thirty-one.
“Yes, he came in yesterday,” Robert heard the overseer say in answer to her question.
He was conscious that Annie Palmer was scrutinising him closely, studying him feature by feature, as it were, sizing him up, calculating about him. She did so quite openly, in no way hesitating or abashed. She must have seen the impression her beauty made upon him, for she smiled a little smile of satisfaction and triumph, forgetting the book-keeper and thinking only of the man. Ashman noticed this by-play, and a dark expression gathered on his brow. Ashman today was cleanly shaved, and anyone could see, in spite of his coarse mouth and insolent eyes, that he too was a handsome man. He was well-built, muscular, a masterful man and a quickly angry one. Anger showed now in his glance, in fists clenched upon reins and whip. But Robert did not notice it. Mrs. Palmer did.
“Mr. Ashman,” she remarked casually, “I will ride back to the house alone; you need not wait for me.”
“But you will go over to Palmyra this afternoon, won’t you? There are some matters I should like you to see for yourself.”
“I am not sure I shall go today.”
“But you said you would, Mrs. Palmer. We arranged it on Saturday.”
“And now I say I won’t”—a note of imperiousness crept into her voice—”and that settles it. You can go over to Palmyra yourself after you have finished what you have to do here today. I will go another day. I’ll not keep you now any longer.” She moved her horse slightly, so as to put the overseer behind her.
He said nothing more, but stared one long moment at Robert. Not liking the man, and noticing the look, Robert returned the stare, and fancied that there was not only hate in it but also fear, distinctly fear. Yet why should an overseer be afraid of a mere book-keeper? That would be to reverse completely the established order of things.
Mr. Ashman touched his hat and rode off. Mrs. Palmer’s face broke into a brilliant smile as, to the surprise of Robert, she put out her hand to shake his. “Welcome to Rosehall,” she said gaily, “though I wish you had come at some other time when I was not obliged to superintend the punishment of rebellious slaves.”
“Thanks,” he replied; but bewildered though he was, and fascinated, he could not help adding: “how rebellious?”
“That is a long story, and I could not tell it to you here. You don’t know the difficulties we are having now with our people. Unless we inspire them with a proper dread they may rise at any moment and cut our throats. You look incredulous! Wait until you have been here a month. I suppose you think me cruel?”
“It is not for me, your employee, to think you cruel or to think anything disrespectful about you,” said Robert humbly. “That would be impertinence.”
“Not in you!”
Again he was surprised. They had just met, and, as mistress and book-keeper, their positions were such poles apart that it was very condescending for her even to take ordinary notice of him. The usual course would have been for her to fling him orders, if she had any to give, through the medium of the overseer. Yet here was she talking to him on friendly, on familiar terms, as an equal, as though they had the same social footing. And she was smiling that dazzling smile of hers—what beautiful teeth she had!—and looking at him with a soft alluring look. He had expected in his youthful ardour to find strange adventures in Jamaica; but of a surety he had expected nothing whatever like this.
“What is your first name?” she asked, seeing that he made no comment on her last remark.
“Robert. My full name is Robert Waddington Rutherford.”
“A rather aristocratic appellation: I shall call you Robert. My name is Annie.”
“I know, Mrs. Palmer.”
“My name is Annie,” she repeated, with playful insistence. “It isn’t a pretty name, is it?”
Robert Rutherford was not only young but a gallant gentleman. He forgot all about his book-keepership; it was the gallant and the fascinated youth who answered: “Not by any means as pretty as its bearer.” He added, as she laughed delightedly: “But what name could be?”
“Good, good!” she cried. “I can see we are going to be excellent friends. But you are a flatterer, you know.”
“Rather one who perhaps speaks the truth too boldly, but only the truth.”
“Better and better! But you puzzled me, Robert. How is it that you came out here to be a nigger slave-driver? You don’t look the part.” She eyed him swiftly up and down, noted that his appearance was rather that of a proprietor than of an underling.
“I came out here to learn the planting business,” he replied immediately. He forgot entirely that his purpose was not to be advertised abroad, lest it should interfere with his gaining of elementary knowledge and experience. “But the sun; surely you feel it, Mrs.——”
“Annie,” she interrupted. “Yes, I feel it, but I can stand it. Better than you, who are not used to it.” Her voice fell a tone or two: “I thought, when I saw you a little while ago, that a man of your appearance was hardly cut out to be a book-keeper; you are very handsome, Robert.”
Abashed at this open compliment, Robert glanced round to see if it could possibly have been overheard; some of the slaves were quite near. She noticed his movement.
“They don’t matter,” she said indifferently; “we are practically alone here. They don’t count; they have no feelings.”
There was supreme if unconscious contempt in her voice, in her look. The people about might have been sticks and stones so far as they affected her.
“It is very dull here,” she went on. “I am glad you came. How does Ashman treat you?”
“He hasn’t had time to treat me well or ill as yet: I have hardly had anything to do with him.”
“He will treat you properly; he must. You needn’t be afraid of him.”
“Him?” queried Robert. “I never had the slightest intention of fearing him. Why should I?”
“Others have feared him,” said Annie Palmer with a slight smile; “he is a passionate man with a strong will.”
“But what has that got to do with me, Mrs. Palmer?”
“Nothing—maybe. And yet it may have. But don’t worry about him; you won’t really be under him. I reside on this estate and at Palmyra—that is the estate behind this one—over the hills”: she pointed southwards. “I understand all about this planting business. You say you want to learn it? Well, you had better learn it directly under me, and then you will have very little to do with Ashman. What do you say to me for your “busha”?”
“It would be impossible for me to have a more charming one,” he cried, falling in with her mood, intoxicated with her beauty and her evident liking for him, flinging to the winds every shred of prudence that might have suggested a circumspect attitude in such strange and original circumstances. The West Indian ethos was already affecting him. He felt at once inclined to live gaily, riotously, dangerously today and let the morrow take care of itself.
“Or a more competent one,” she added, with peculiar intonation and laugh. “Lord! how bored have I been for a long time. Not a soul worthwhile to talk to for weeks and months. A drear, drab existence—dull as hell! Don’t be shocked; I spoke literally, not blasphemously. Hell must be a place of utter boredom, which is the worst torture a soul can have. Torment from flogging or burning could not be so dreadful. To be bored day after day, no change, no respite, only the perpetual repetition of the same thing until even madness would be welcome: that is the worst misery that a man or a woman could have. And I have had something of that misery for some time here. Only last night I felt that it would be a positive relief to me to see the Rosehall Great House in flames. I actually felt that!”
“A dangerous feeling, Mrs.——Annie. Don’t you know that Nero burnt Rome down because he wished to see what a great conflagration was like? Perhaps Nero was bored, too.”
“Very likely. But of course I wouldn’t burn my house; I haven’t many palaces as Nero had. And then I think my boredom is over now. I came out here this morning to see some malcontent slaves punished and I found—you.”
“If I can amuse you, I am sure I shall be glad.”
“Your friendship can make life very different for me,” she answered softly. “You will come up to the Great House to dinner tonight?”
“I promised Burbridge that we should dine together tonight,” he hesitated.
“He won’t hold you to that promise, I am sure,” she said dryly. “I suppose he has been talking to you a lot about me? Old hands always talk about the proprietors to new-comers, you know,” she went on, as if in explanation of her question.
“No; he has said nothing.”
She was piercing him with her eyes as he answered; she seemed convinced that he was speaking the truth.
“At half-past seven this evening, then,” she said; “till then, good-bye.”
With eyes aglow with admiration, which had grown and deepened as they had conversed, and which she had seen with intensifying gratification, he watched her go. He saw her halt at the boiling-house and send a message to someone in it. Presently Burbridge came out, hat in hand, and she talked to him for a while. Then she turned, gaily waved her whip in Robert’s direction, and cantered off towards the Great House. Burbridge waited until she reached it, then slowly came over to Robert. His manner was diffident, troubled. He spoke with constraint.
“Mrs. Palmer says she has asked you up to dinner; you can knock off at five o’clock if you wish, Mr. Rutherford.”
“Mr. Rutherford! Burbridge, what the devil is the matter with you?” asked the young man.
“I meant nothing, Rutherford; I wish you luck.”
“Go on—you have something else to say.”
“No-o. I don’t think so. I’ll see you this afternoon at our diggings.”
“Now what’s the matter with Burbridge?” thought Robert, who had not observed the searching glance with which the other man had scanned his face. Burbridge had seen in the exaltation in Robert’s countenance, had heard in the new vibration of his voice, all that he wished to know. “He’s fallen in love with her at sight,” thought Burbridge. “Well, he is not singular; but I like him. Let’s hope for the best.”
And Robert: everything had changed for him in that last half-hour. She liked him; every word she had said, every look she had given him, was eloquent of that. Why, they had almost been making love to one another in the sight of all men, in the midst of open fields, and she had spoken of Ashman as one who might be dangerous. Did Ashman love her? That was very likely; very likely too that Burbridge did. Any man would; she was so extraordinarily lovely, so fascinating. Not an hour ago he had been regretting that he had come to Rosehall, now there was no place that he would exchange for it. What eyes she had, what wonderful eyes! And what lips. And she was lonely here and bored; and he was lonely too, and would be bored but for her. He was only a book-keeper? Tut, that was nonsense; he was a West Indian proprietor like herself, or would be some day; meanwhile his worldly fortunes were quite respectable. He could meet her as an equal; she had understood that from the first. She had known him for what he was. Burbridge wished him luck; well, he wasvery lucky. He could not have imagined, much less expected, this amazing good fortune, this swift transformation of his entire outlook.
He noticed just then that some women in the cane-piece had almost entirely ceased work and were staring at him with what he regarded as a curious, impertinent air. He turned to them sternly and ordered them to resume their task. One laughed a little but they all became busy; yet he could see that they threw glances at him as they toiled, and talked amongst themselves, about him obviously. He was still young enough to blush at this, for he felt that it might be about the mistress and himself that all the slaves on the estate would soon be talking. Some of them had heard what had been said. Did they fully understand? Annie said that they had no feelings, spoke of them as if they did not matter. And indeed they did not matter; what they might think could have not the slightest sort of significance. Tonight he would be with her, see her face again, hear her wonderful voice. He had never seen eyes like hers before, eyes that seemed to draw and persuade and subdue you, eyes that commanded, eyes that looked into your very soul.
The long mournful howl of a conchshell sounded just then, and the slaves threw down their implements of labour and hastened to their midday meal. Many of them, squatting on the ground, drew out of bundles they had with them cold plantains and roasted yams, with a flavouring of salt herring, and began to munch these edibles with hearty appetite. Some hastily built a fire to the leeward of the cane pieces and proceeded to cook some raw food. They were now chattering freely. The punishment which some of them had witnessed in the forenoon did not affect their appreciation of this moment, and Robert, as he rode on to his room, reflected that they could not really be unhappy if they could take life like this, so boisterously and with so much laughter. They were not treated badly; his judgment had been far too hasty. Annie had to be firm, but she was as kind as she was beautiful. He had no doubt of that.
He reached the book-keepers’ quarters and ran in for a snack. He found Psyche all excitement, portentous with importance. She bustled about, explained that Mr. Burbridge was having his lunch in the boiling-house that day, placed the meal on the table in the middle apartment, then said:
“Millie come, massa.”
“Millie?” Robert was at a loss to understand her.
“Yes, me cousin; I bring her fo’ you to look at her.”
“Oh; but—well, I do want someone to do my share of the work here; but Millie doesn’t belong to this estate, I think you said.”
“No, massa, but dat don’t make no difference, Millie!”
Out of Burbridge’s room stepped the lady of that name. A tall girl of about twenty, of golden-brown complexion and long, slightly frizzed hair, Millie was much better-looking than her cousin, better clothed, and had an air which the other completely lacked. At a glance Robert noticed that her feet were shod, an unusual occurrence among girls who lived outside of the town of Montego Bay, and not common even there. Millie wore white, which was spotless; her straight nose and gleaming eyes were attractive; she carried herself with self-consciousness as a girl who had known admiration and had learned to estimate her charms at a high value.
“Good morning, Squire.”
Robert noticed that she did not say “massa.”
“So you are Millie, eh?” he replied. “But how did you get here so soon? You don’t live on this estate?”
“No, Squire; but I come here nearly every day, an’ me cousin tell me that you—you want to see me. I was here yesterday too, an’ I saw when you ride in. So I know you already, Squire.”
“And you want a job to look after my part of this house?”
“I think I could look after you well, Squire.”
“I don’t need looking after, Millie; but the place does. I am told that I can be supplied with a servant here, but perhaps you would do much better.”
“A servant?” asked Millie. Her face was troubled, disappointment plainly expressed in it.
“A housekeeper,” corrected Psyche.
“A housekeeper?” echoed Millicent. “You like me, Squire?”
“Of course I do; you seem quite a nice, tidy girl, but liking has hardly anything to do with our arrangement, has it? You are a free girl, aren’t you? How much wages do you expect?”
“We don’t need to talk ’bout wages now,” said Millicent hastily. “I can read and write, an’ I saw you yesterday, Squire, an’ like you.” She paused, not wishing to say much in the presence of a third party, and without definite encouragement from the squire.
She glanced at Psyche, who had sense enough to perceive that Millicent wished her away for a while. So Psyche went outside, to get something, she said, and Millie stood with down-cast eyes waiting to hear what the squire would decide.
“You can have the job if you like,” said Robert indifferently. “You will come every morning?”
“Don’t I am to sleep here?”
“Where? There is no place that I can see.”
“Then you don’t like me, Squire?”
“What do you mean, my good girl? Must one have a personal liking for every dependent? Of course I like you! Are you satisfied?”
“But, but—but if I am not to live here, Squire, where am I to live?”
“I can’t solve that problem for you, Millie; you had better think it out for yourself. Did you expect to live here?”
“Yes, if you like me an’ I am your housekeeper. You would be my husband, don’t you understan’?”
“By Jove!” cried Robert, startled, but amused. “I get your point of view now! But I didn’t tell Psyche that, though it seems to be the custom here.”
“I am sorry,” sighed Millicent, with a full flash of her eyes at the handsome face of the young man who she proposed should be her “husband.” “Psyche didn’t tell me everything. An’, as I tell you, I saw you yesterday, an’ I like you when I see you. A lot of the young bushas on these estates want me, you know, but I don’t have nothing to do with them. You are different.”
“You are very kind to say so, Millie,” answered Robert, feeling somewhat embarrassed, yet flattered nevertheless, “but there has been a misunderstanding. You won’t take the job of looking after my room and my meals, then?”
The girl thought for a moment. She came to a decision.
“Yes, I will take it. I can wash and sew and cook, an’ I can read and write.”
“Your qualifications are excellent,” smiled Robert, who was too happy himself not to wish to make others happy also. “As your cousin would say, you are very virtuous.”
“Yes, I am virtuous,” agreed Millie gravely, “an’ you will find me so if——”
“Sufficient unto the day is the virtue thereof,” interrupted the young man quickly. “Well, you can take charge whenever you like.”
“All right, Squire, an’ I will sleep in this room,” said Millie decisively, indicating the middle apartment.
- A shell of a very large conch, pierced at one end, used as a horn. ↵