The White Witch of Rosehall

Chapter 7: The Brown Girl

The West Indian dawn was breaking when Robert mounted his horse and rode away towards his quarters. He glanced back and upwards when he had reached the lower ground; from the front window of the room above there peeped out a face, and a hand came forth waving farewell to him.

Early as it was the house servants were astir; one of them had even offered him coffee before he should leave, but he had been anxious to get away. He was not yet hardened to the callous frankness of a Jamaica liaison; he now felt ashamed that these menials, slaves though they might be, should see him, know whence he came, and be able to talk about it freely to their companions. The elation of the hours before had vanished; he was secretly startled that he had so quickly succumbed to what he had heard at home were the manners and customs of this country, with a disregard of all concealment, a careless acceptance of any conditions and circumstances that might appeal at the moment, however flagrantly might be violated every principle of circumspect conduct. He was suffering now from a reaction. His mood was depressed, his attitude towards himself critical.

But for a moment this mood of censorious introspection vanished before the moving influences of the scene that disclosed itself to his admiring gaze. The sun was surging upwards away to the right; along the edge of a bank of nacre there ran a line of gold. Clouds of soft blushing pink floated lazily against a background of delicate blue; to the left the skies were golden and the green of the earth was alternately dark and light, with deep greys here and there, and splashes of bright scarlet where a giant poinsettia reared its long branches high above the fields of cane.

There had been heavy dew in the long hours of the night. It sparkled now on every leaf and twig; it shone, a million crystal globules, as the sunlight swept down upon the earth; silver and emerald glowed everywhere; it was as though all the land had been bathed in celestial waters. There was a tang in the air from the sea beyond. With the dawning, a light wind had sprung up; it fanned the sweeping expanse of the Caribbean, fretted it here into frosted azure, transformed it there into glittering jewels. The breeze came laden with the scent of saline waters, cool and exhilarating. And even as Robert stood to gaze, his horse motionless in obedience to his mood, the sun soared swiftly into sight.

It came with a triumphant impetus, as though it knew it were the lord of day, beneficent mainly, but cruel at times when its burning rays would wither the countryside, consume the liquid in rivers and in ponds, cause man and beast to perish, and, day after day, week after week, would flame downwards out of a hard and brazen sky with heat like a blast from hell. But now it was all glorious, and the birds hailed it with song, and the cattle lifted up their voices in a deep, grateful lowing, and men and women rejoiced in its gentle warmth.

Robert drew a deep breath. He knew that in a little while all the moisture at his feet and on the vegetation around would have disappeared, that the softness and sweetness of the early morning would be gone. But for this brief hour the feel of life was perfect, the impulse in one’s heart was to shout aloud for the mere joy of being alive. Something of this must have been felt even by those in bondage, for while he stood and looked about him he heard a chorus of merry noises which seemed to come from carefree hearts. Then he gave his horse rein and began to move forward again. And his thoughts returned to Annie and his adventure of the night.

Annie Palmer had not appeared to him to be quite so young in the chilly dawn of the December morning as she had the night before, or when he had seen her on horseback in the fields. There were little lines across her brow, slight it is true, but indisputably there; and just the tiniest of crow’s feet about the corners of her eyes. Her full lips which quivered with passion had hinted to him of fervent overwhelming desire; they were the lips of a woman in whom sensuality was temperamental and dominant. She was all fire; there was no restraint about her; but she excused it, defended it, on the ground that she loved him madly; again and again had she told him so, and he believed her absolutely. He believed that she loved him, that he loved her also; yet, he knew, felt, that hers was a volcanic passion, that hers was a tempestuous temperament, wild as the sea fronting Rosehall when it was lashed to fury by the winds that rushed down from the north, fierce as the storms that sometimes ranged over this country, devastating it in an hour or two.

He had pledged himself to her. He had gone to the Great House the night before with no such intention in his mind, although she had fascinated him. He had entered it as a guest; he had left it as a lover pledged, as a lover to whom she belonged and who was hers without reservation; so both of them had passionately asseverated. He was tired now and weary in mind and body. For two nights he had hardly slept, and even his abounding energy was taxed by the exhausting excitements through which he had passed. She had laughed at his protests that he would have to work that day, asking him why he should wish to ride about sun-baked fields or sit sweltering in a boiling-house redolent with the odour of bubbling cane juice and of sweating human bodies; but he had insisted that he must play the game with Burbridge, and she had given in. Nevertheless the task before him was distasteful. This estate life and its exigencies were new to him, and the malaise in his mind conflicted with the necessities of a day’s laborious and sordid routine.

She was beautiful, strong, passionate, wealthy, self-reliant, and she loved him. He would not live in the Great House with her; on that he had made up his mind; for one thing, he did not wish to leave Burbridge, who so obviously wanted to be friendly with him and who would feel that he had become, in some sort, a master instead of a colleague. There was also his persistent impulse towards personal independence. He had not come to Jamaica to accept anything from a woman; he could not stay in the Great House and not be, in a manner of speaking, a recipient of a hospitality which he could not return.

But how long, in any case, he asked himself, could this life, that had just begun, endure? Annie was a white woman; she had been married; she was still young. Women like her did not, even in Jamaica, contract open, unlegalised connubial relations with men; he knew enough of the colony to be aware of that. Whatever might be done in secret, there was some respect shown by them to such public opinion as existed. Their husbands and sons and brothers cared nothing what might be said about them. Robert had been told in Montego Bay, by his friend the rector, that these men, even if married, openly maintained other establishments; talked about them, could not imagine why there should be any secrecy or shame in regard to them. But a somewhat different standard for women of the upper orders obtained, and Annie belonged to those orders, was assuredly in the front rank of them. Here was something of a problem; how was it to be solved? By marriage? He had not thought seriously about marriage in his life; he had certainly not considered it a likely, or even possible, consequence of his journey; neither of them had hinted at it last night. But she had been three times married, and if he loved her, and she him, what more logical, more natural, than that this suddenly developed relationship of theirs should end in marriage? But what would his father say?

Robert knew. His father would be startled at hearing any suggestion of an alliance between him and a woman who had already had three husbands and who had herself admitted that she had many enemies in this island who traduced her and kept away from her—who shunned her. His father would be grieved, resentful; there would be an estrangement between them. And he himself; did he really wish for marriage with Annie? Would he willingly, gladly, make her his wife, vow to be everything to her, select her as the companion of a lifetime? He dismissed the question hastily, saying to himself that it was mean and unworthy of him to ask it, feeling indignant that it should have obtruded itself into his mind. Yet the very hastiness and indignation with which he strove to eject it, put it from him, instead of facing it and answering it fairly, caused him an uneasy twinge of conscience; he felt, though he tried not to feel, that he was endeavouring to deceive himself. He said to himself that it was unnecessary, premature, to think of such a thing as marriage now. He meant, and was secretly conscious that he meant, that he did not wish to think of it at all.

He rode very slowly, his horse going at a walk. A delicious coolness was in the air, the sky in front of him was all rosy, with soft white clouds shining in a mellow light, the green of the cane-fields stretching away, a wavering sea of vivid colour on either hand. He could see the wavelets of the Caribbean break gently upon the white margin of beach; the tropical birds had awakened and were calling to one another and singing their morning song, the cattle lowed plaintively as they were driven from their pens to begin the day’s work. Now and then a shouted order, sharp, but the words unintelligible, reached his ear.

He suspected that his figure, clearly outlined as it must be from his eminence on a horse’s back, was perceptible to every eye that was turned in his direction; perhaps Ashman saw him, Ashman who had arranged to be at the Great House that morning to accompany Annie over to Palmyra. Ashman’s conduct last night had been extraordinary; he had acted as though jealous of his presence in the house. Ashman had seemed disposed to make trouble, would probably seek for a reason to do so. Ashman would know by now that he had spent the night at the Great House, and draw his own conclusions. There was some complication to be expected here. Conflict was being ingeminated between him and this aggressive, bullying man.

He hitched his horse to a post standing by his quarters when he arrived at them; he observed that the door of Burbridge’s room stood ajar and guessed that Burbridge himself must have already repaired to his duties. But before he could reach his own door that of the middle apartment opened and Millicent appeared. She wore a looser dress than she had worn the day before, and her head was lightly bound up in a coloured handkerchief which she must have tied on just a moment or so ago.

He was surprised to see her; he had not expected her to take up her work as housekeeper so early.

Millicent looked worried, anxious: there was a strained expression on her face.

He would have passed her with a nod, but she stopped him. “You was all night at the Great House, Squire?” she asked.

“Yes,” he replied shortly, resenting the question. “You can get some coffee for me.”

“It’s boiling already; I soon give it to you. I come here at about eight o’clock last night an’ find you gone to the House. I hardly sleep a wink all night.”

“Well, I don’t see that that concerns me,” he said irritably; “is it the custom here for servants or housekeepers to sit up when their employers are away?”

He walked into the room and seated himself on the edge of the bed. There was a close musty smell about the place; it disgusted him; the contrast between the Great House and these wretched diggings was overwhelming.

Millicent had evidently been preparing for his morning arrival. She went to the back of the house and presently returned with a large mug of steaming coffee and a roasted yam, and a hunch of roasted saltfish flavoured with coconut-oil. She placed these on the table and waited to see him eat.

He drank the coffee, which refreshed him somewhat; the food did not appeal to him, though it was ordinary, good book-keeper’s fare.

He felt in a better mood after his coffee; he looked at Millicent good-humouredly. “So you were up all night, eh? You have taken charge early, but sitting up is not a part of your job.”

“I know that,” she replied calmly, and, to his astonishment, seated herself on the bed beside him. “But I was anxious about you. You went to a bad place.”

“The devil! My good girl, you may be free, as you have told me more than once; but if you are going to be too free with your tongue you will certainly regret it. How dare you speak of your mistress’s house as a bad place?”

“She not my mistress, for I am free—an’ educated,” added Millie with emphasis. “I don’t belong to her. An’ it is a bad place; it is haunted. All sort of noise and cries you hear in dat house at night, an’ sometimes in the day too. A lot of people die in there—an’ they die funny. You going back, again, Squire?”

“This is impertinence, Millie,” Robert coldly replied. “You can go now; I don’t need you any more.”

Tears gathered in Millie’s eyes; she looked hurt. And Robert, who was naturally kind-hearted, and who could not but see that this was a very handsome, well-built girl who had not the slightest intention of offending him, relented. After all, he thought, manners were very free and easy in this country; he had noticed in Montego Bay that even slaves seemed able to take liberties with their masters. And this girl was no slave. “Now, don’t be silly,” he said, “I didn’t mean to hurt your feelings.”

“But you hurt them all the same, an’ I only tell you what I tell you because I don’t want nothing to happen to you. I couldn’t sleep all night because I was fretting for you. Evil spirit is in that Great House, an’ God help you if you get in their way!”

“But Mrs. Palmer lives there, Millie, and she is not afraid of these evil spirits you speak of.”

“She know why she is not afraid,” returned Millicent significantly, “though she should be de first to be afraid. You was with her last night?”

“That will do! Just take those things and go!”

“I will go if you send me away; but I told you yesterday that I like you, an’ I thought you was going to like me, too, an’ that is why I come to keep your house. I am not a poor girl looking for work. Me gran’father—you will soon hear who he is—don’t want me to work for any man; he is rich an’ strong—as strong as Mrs. Palmer.” Millie sprang to her feet. “And that is why I can talk to you as I talk; I don’t afraid of Mrs. Palmer and all she can do. She take you up to de Great House last night—oh, I know—like she take up other men; an’ you will come to the same end if you don’t careful. I pray to God all night last night for you, and I going to ask me gran’father to protect you. But he can’t help you if you don’t help yourself.”

Robert looked at the girl as though she were insane; and indeed it did seem to him that she must be slightly touched. Of what was she raving?

“I don’t think I need even your grandfather’s protection,” he laughed; “but your prayers will no doubt be useful.”

“You laugh at what you don’t understand,” she answered sadly. “Wait till you know more, an’ then you might want to cry. I wish you would leave dis place!” she exclaimed fervently. “Don’t stay here; leave as quick as you can—and take me wid you. I will go wid you anywhere. Harm will come to you if you remain, an’ then me heart would break.”

“You are excited by your long night’s vigil,” he said gently; then, seeing that she did not understand him quite, he added: “you should not have stayed awake last night. Well, run outside now; I have got to go to work at once. By the way, I am feeling weary; can I get a rum punch or anything like that here? There must be some rum in Mr. Burbridge’s room. Perhaps Psyche——”

“I can get it out of the room without calling Psyche,” said the girl; “but rum so early in the morning is bad. Many squires from England die because they drink soon in the morning. You don’t want some more coffee instead?”

“No; I need something stronger. Everything that I seem to want you consider bad, Millie, and death is ever in your mind. You are the funniest servant I have ever had.”

“I came as your housekeeper, not as a servant,” she retorted, emphasising the word housekeeper, giving it the significance of its Jamaica meaning. “And,” she boldly added, “I wouldn’t care what you did, or whether you live or die, if I didn’t love you. So there!”

She went to get the rum, and he mused awhile. This was extraordinary; two women, one white, the other brown, and both indubitably handsome in their respective ways, had told him within a very few hours that they loved him. This was flattering to his vanity, but he perceived that jealousy might be engendered between the two; this brown girl already spoke as one bitterly jealous. She had just said something about Annie taking to the Great House other men who had come to some unpleasant end—other men: what the devil did the little nigger mean? Other men . . . Oh! Annie’s former husbands of course, and because these had died poor Annie was held as in some way responsible for their death. She had said that some talk went about. But he was not going to have a servant, even if she had independent manners and openly professed love for him, speaking insolently and disrespectfully of Rosehall’s mistress!

Millie came back with the liquor and handed it to him with evident reluctance; he took it silently and gulped it down; at once he felt new energy course through his veins. His head swam, for the rum was potent and the quantity plentiful, but it put him in good spirits. He was not disposed to be harsh with Millie now; indeed he suddenly realised that he rather liked this brown spitfire who dared to go great lengths because she was “free and educated” and her grandfather was a man of wealth and power. He developed an interest in this wonderful grandfather; evidently he was a person of mark. He began to eat his breakfast, and as he ate he talked.

“Is your grandfather a white man, Millie?” he asked.

“One of them was; but he’s dead; he was me father’s father.”

“Then this other grandfather of yours whom you invoke with such reverence and awe?”

She looked puzzled.

“My language,” he smiled, “is perhaps not sufficiently “educated.” I mean who and of what colour is this other grandfather of yours?”

“He is black, coal-black, and he tall and old, very old: he is a Guinea man and wise! He can talk to spirits, like the old witch in de Bible, who call up Samuel. Me gran’father is very great; everybody here ’fraid for him—even Mrs. Palmer!”

“I see! An African and what you call out here an obeahman. Is that it?”

“Y-e-e-e-s; but he’s more than a obeahman. More powerful.”

“Originally an African witch-doctor, I suppose, and a hoary old scoundrel. Let him take care he doesn’t get into trouble, Millie.”

“They can’t do him anything; him is too strong. He protect me, an’ he can protect you, too, if you want. But so long as you stay here you are out of his reach. You better leave, Squire. Trouble coming for you.”

“I will stay and meet it. And look here, Millie, I won’t send you away as I threatened to do a while ago. But you are to understand that you must say nothing rude about the lady of this property. Do you hear?”

Millie nodded her head sadly. “I hear,” she answered, “and I understand. You love her, an’ you don’t love me!”

“Perfectly incorrigible,” laughed Robert, now restored to the best of humour by his drink, for that was the effect which drink usually had upon him. “Perhaps,” he added, “I will love you too.” Then, to his own amazing surprise, for he had not contemplated any such action, he bent over and kissed Millie on the mouth, and gaily sallied forth. As for the girl, she stood stock still, thrilled to the marrow, exalted to the seventh heaven of delight. A triumphant glare shone in her eyes, the light of victory. Just when she had thought she had lost everything she glimpsed a prospect of ultimate triumph and success.

On the instant her mind was made up, and Millicent had a resolute mind. She was going to fight with Mrs. Palmer herself for possession of this man. Other girls like her had fought with as highly-placed ladies before in this same parish, and had won. Millie determined to seek Mr. Ashman without delay and to enlist him as her ally.


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