The White Witch of Rosehall
They moved slowly up the broad stairway, built in three short flights; arrived at the upper story, Robert walking straight in front him with the candles held high in his hand—for the windows were open—came to the door of a room which faced the steps, and paused. Annie hesitated for a second; then seemed to make up her mind to speak. “My first husband died in that room,” she said laconically, “so I keep it closed. The silly slaves are always hearing noises in there, though I have stopped them showing fright when I am near.”
“And there,” she went on, indicating the next room, the one farther on, “is where my second husband died, and this one”—she pointed to another—”was where my last master passed away—drunk. It’s a beastly story, Robert. I tell it to you because others will do so, and they are not likely to tell the truth, or indeed to know it so well as I. You will probably hear that I keep all these rooms closed, and that is so. They are never opened now.”
“Not even by the house slaves?” he asked, gazing curiously at those three rooms where the men who had been successively the lords of this lovely, brave, vivacious little woman by his side had breathed their last. He wondered how she could find the courage to sleep night after night under the same roof, believing as she did, as she had said, that the spirits of the dead could return to earth from hell itself.
“By no one,” she answered, “such rooms are really graves, or like graves.”
The courage of this admission struck him.
“But if everyone closed for ever a room in which a man or woman died, Annie,” he urged, “the largest house would soon become an empty ruin.”
“True,” she admitted, “but I have a wish to keep these rooms so. There is no one to use them, so why should they be opened? This place is far too big for me as it is.”
She took the lights from him, went towards the other side of the landing and threw open another door, stepping inside. “And this is where your little friend retires at night to her loneliness and friendlessness,” she explained.
He peeped in; he saw a great canopied bed hung with a white mosquito net, a huge mahogany four-poster with the uprights richly carved. Three chairs of expensive wood were in the room, a large dressing-table stood in front of a tall mirror; a mahogany press, and a heavy rug spread upon the floor, completed the furniture. It was a sumptuously furnished apartment, more sumptuous than elegant. She entered it; he stood at the threshold. “Come in,” she mocked, “there is not a single soul to see us, and to talk.” She put the candle-holder on the dressing-table and fixed her eyes on him. There was provocation in them; an invitation scarcely to be misunderstood.
He stepped inside, looked round and went up to one of the windows; he was breathing heavily as an unpractised runner might. He saw the lands of the estate rolling away until lost in obscurity, could distinguish the darker shadows as trees towering above the cane, caught a glimpse of lights far below, and knew them to be those from boiling-house and still-house and book-keepers’ quarters, and, raising his head, gazed for a while on the innumerable tropical stars which glowed above in the soft silken blackness of the sky. It was all vague and still and lovely out there, and here was he, a few days after his coming to this strange land of slavery and passion, beauty and mystery—for to him it seemed mysterious—in the company of a woman with a strange history, a woman alone, who had passed through more heart-searing experiences than fall to the lot of most women, and who was, to his thinking, the most beautiful of her sex that his eyes had ever seen.
And she loved him, wanted him: he could not be blind to that.
Elsewhere, to some men, she might seem bold and forward, as she herself had suggested she must appear in his eyes. But here it seemed that everything she did or said was natural, inevitable; for her circumstances were not normal and the hardships and distresses of her life were surely a warrant for her splendid independence. She loved him—he could not use a weaker word, though always, in his relations with women he was modest. And he?—he had never fallen seriously in love with a woman before, but for this one he felt that he could do anything, brave any censure, face any desperate risk. She had taken him absolutely into her confidence, told him, at almost their very first meeting, the story of her bitter married life. She had appealed to him for his sympathy and help, and he had promised that they should be hers to the full. She was ready to brave the world’s sneers and calumny for his sake: she had more than hinted as much. Could he be prepared to do less for her?
He turned from the window and walked towards her; she was standing by the side of her canopied bed, her back towards it, her hands resting upon it. Again she caught his eyes and held them, with that curious magnetic gaze that had struck him in the cane-fields that forenoon. But while it had then appeared hard and compelling, now it was alluring and soft, for the light of love was in her eyes, and the warm flame of an appealing desire.
“It is a very beautiful view from that window,” he began, banally, for it was not about the outer scene that he wished to speak. The words sounded puerile in his own ears. The wine he had drunk was still heating his brain, still causing his blood to course through his veins in a hot stream; his pulses throbbed under the influence of this bewitching woman’s beauty. She nodded her head, agreeing, but looked as though she expected he had something more to say. His arms went suddenly out; he caught her and drew her close to him, tightly, and kissed her hair, her brow, her lips in a frenzy of passion. He felt her answering kisses; they burned upon his lips. She gave herself up to him, a complete surrender. “So you love me, Robert, love me as I love you!” she panted, and as she spoke a thunderous noise filled the house with weird, nerve-shattering sound. And the lights went out.
“Heavens! What is that?” Robert was startled into an expression of fear. He had started back, but she placed a quick hand upon his shoulder as though to steady and reassure him. “The wind is stronger now,” she answered, “a puff of it caused one of the doors downstairs to bang. I have spoken to the women about that before; they should fasten the doors so that they should not bang; I shall have to see that this does not happen again.”
“It sounded as though it were up here, as though someone had struck a terrific blow somewhere near to us, opposite. I thought it was an earthquake: I have heard of them. You are sure it was not up here, Annie?”
“Quite sure. I know it seemed as though it were very close to us; but sounds are peculiar in this house.”
“They would be with those three rooms kept always closed,” he muttered, for a dread of something inexplicable had come upon him, a dread born of the memory of three dead men, one a lunatic, who had, as she had told him, stabbed her and then taken his own life.
“Let us think of ourselves,” she whispered, nestling up to him. “Let us think of ourselves only in all the world, and of our love for one another. There is nothing to fear.”
But now the sound of a horse’s hoofs came distinctly to their ears, and immediately a murmur of voices below was heard. That someone had arrived unexpectedly was clear. Annie Palmer did not seem inclined to allow that incident to trouble her, but Robert made haste to light once more the candles, then looked at her questioningly. She answered his look with an acquiescent nod; she knew that he would not remain up there with some visitor or messenger waiting for her downstairs. They went down together and found Ashman in the dining-room, standing. He bowed to her as they entered.
“I have just come from Palmyra,” he said at once; “I found the slaves there in a very bad frame of mind. I surprised some of them at a secret meeting they were having in one of their huts—the ringleaders, I mean. They heard me coming, so I didn’t quite catch what they were plotting, but I know it’s some rascality. All over the parish there is trouble brewing, Mrs. Palmer, as I have told you before, and I think we should do something about it right away.”
“So that’s it, is it?” she asked. “But you could have waited till tomorrow to tell me this. I can’t do anything tonight.”
“I thought it was right you should know tonight.”
“You thought you would pay me a visit,” she replied. “Have you got the ringleaders, as you call them, locked up so that they can’t get away?”
“I took jolly good care about that! I told them you were certain to give it to them hot tomorrow and no nonsense about it.”
“There’s going to be no nonsense about it! It is their skins or our lives, and I prefer our lives. Very well, Mr. Ashman; thank you. You can call for me tomorrow morning, and we’ll ride over to Palmyra together. I’ll be ready at seven.”
“You’re going down, Rutherford?” asked Mr. Ashman, now addressing Robert for the first time. “Our way is the same, and I want to talk to you about some work in the still-house that’s got to be done tomorrow.”
“Mr. Rutherford is my guest tonight, Mr. Ashman,” said Mrs. Palmer, not giving Robert a chance to reply. “He will go when he is ready, and you need not wait for him.” The rich tones of her voice which Robert so much admired, were rather hard now. There was a metallic imperiousness in her voice which neither man could fail to recognise.
“But the estate’s work has to be done,” said Ashman stubbornly, “and it is late already.”
“Late! Are you going to dictate hours to me or to my guests?”
“I am in charge of the estate. An—Mrs. Palmer.”
“Under me. I give final orders here. Overseers may come and overseers may go, but I remain; do you understand? Your manners need mending, Mr. Ashman.”
“Thank you for discovering that! Well, you are the owner and so can do what you like. And you are quite right when you say that overseers can go. I can go, for instance.”
“I am not getting rid of you, at any rate,” she answered, softening her tones a little. For Ashman was angry now and seemed prepared to go to any lengths.
She went up to him. “Mr. Rutherford is out here to learn the planting business; he is not an ordinary book-keeper,” she explained. “I know about him and his people in England, and that is why I take an interest in him. Don’t be silly, John! I know how devoted you are to my interests, but you need not let that cause you to forget your good manners. So you will call for me at seven in the morning? And then we can talk matters over—everything? Where is your horse?”
She had been gently impelling him towards the door as she spoke, and he could do nothing save move in the direction that she wished him to. But he did not bid Robert good night. When he had ridden off she returned.
“Competent overseers are not too easily picked up in Jamaica,” she explained, a little breathlessly, “and just at this time I don’t want to get rid of Ashman; but if he continues to be insolent he will have to go. I suppose that because I just won’t put up with everything he says, he will become one of my enemies. Don’t pay any attention to what he does or says; just keep away from him.”
“That is not easy, for he is the overseer,” Robert pointed out; “but I am not likely to seek his company. I disliked the man from the first moment I met him.”
“Keep on disliking him. Where shall we go now?”
“Look at those doors, Annie,” he cried, not answering her question. He had just noticed that the doors were fastened backwards, so that these at least could not possibly have made the reverberating noise that had startled them a while before. “Those doors did not bang.”
“You forget the drawing-room doors. They are much heavier than these.”
“Let us look at them.”
But those, too, were securely locked.
“Now what made that noise?” asked Robert; “could it have been an earthquake?”
“I tell you it was one of these doors. The women must have heard the noise and run in and fastened it so that they could not be blamed for neglect. And it is no use asking them anything about it; they would lie for the mere sake of lying. Do you wonder now that I have sometimes to punish them?”
He saw that that must be the right explanation. “Shall we sit in the drawing-room?” he asked.
“Wherever you please,” she answered softly, “but I should like to look at the night; it is very beautiful, and I want to look at it with you. Come with me where we can see the sky and the stars and talk about the little things that concern ourselves. Won’t you come?”
“Anywhere that you wish!”
She lifted her face towards him; he bent down and kissed her. The doors leading to the courtyard stood wide open, but he forgot that or did not mind it now; her disregard of peering slave eyes affected him also; what did it matter what they saw? She slipped her arms round him and clung to him; he lifted her sheer off her feet and kissed her again and again.
“Carry me upstairs in your arms,” she pleaded, “I love to feel how strong you are. You can go with daybreak, Robert; not before. My darling, my dearest, how I love you!”