The White Witch of Rosehall
First she tidied Robert’s room, though that had not been much disturbed, and she attended to the room in which she had stayed the night before. Then she went to the trash-house, where Psyche was usually to be found piling the dried refuse of the pressed cane, which was used when required as fuel for the mill. She told Psyche that she must look after the lunch of both of the young massas that day, and after their dinner, if necessary; she, Millicent, might not be back before night. She already knew that Mr. Ashman was going to Palmyra that day; one of the lads had whispered the news early that morning. He might not be back for a couple of days, and she wished to see him as early as possible. She was of a quick, impulsive character; she hated procrastination; and now especially she was in a fever-heat of impatience. She must act. She prepared at once for her journey to Palmyra.
That estate, which was much larger than Rosehall, was situated behind and to the south of it, and was connected with Rosehall by a bridle-path leading over the intervening hills. It lay in a hollow; it was “worked” by far more slaves than were to be found on Rosehall; it had its own Great House and overseer’s residence, and all the other appurtenances of a great sugar estate. Mr. Ashman was in charge of both properties, his energy and capacity rendering him quite capable of handling both. Ashman was an able man in his way; the financial success of Rosehall and of Palmyra in these last two years had been due to his competent management.
Millicent knew that he would ride over to Palmyra, and so be there long before she could come up with him—she did not know that Mrs. Palmer was riding with him that morning. But she calculated that she could get to the next property soon enough to catch him at the overseer’s house; if he were out riding round the estate, however, she would have to await her opportunity of speaking to him. What she was going to say she had not yet thought out; she must feel her way when she met him. But she knew that everybody said he had been Mrs. Palmer’s lover, that everybody said he was still enamoured of her, and that lately there had been a coldness between them that had preyed upon his mind and worsened an already nasty temper. That he was a strong and determined man Millicent was well aware; that he would fight to regain his old ascendancy over the mistress of Rosehall she guessed. She wanted him to do that, without harming Robert, of course, whom Millicent regarded as merely a victim of Annie Palmer’s. Millicent, young and, on the whole, unsophisticated though she was, shared to the full the ordinary feminine distrust of her own sex and was ready to attribute what a man did that was not right in her sight to the wiles and machinations of some other woman. Robert, having come to Rosehall but two days ago, she told herself, could not be blamed for anything he did in connection with Mrs. Palmer. It was the lady who was responsible; it was from the lady—a very terrible character—that the young squire must be rescued by any means; and if those means were not fair Millicent would have not the smallest objection to them or experience the slightest sting of self-reproach in employing them.
She walked with a rapid stride, swinging her upright body smartly and easily as she marched, communing with herself, filled wholly with her purpose. The young “massa”—she called him so in her mind, yielding to custom, in spite of her freedom and education—had kissed her, and, in spite of all that she had said about Mrs. Palmer, had decided to let her stay on in his service. He had confessed that he might come to like her. But he had been with the white lady all the night before, as other men had been, and she had heard a great deal about the fascination which that woman exercised over those who loved her until she wearied of them. If she could break that enthralment at once, the young, handsome squire would be saved and would leave Rosehall, taking her with him, as she was absolutely determined that he should do. He was not the first young white man that had liked her; others had suggested an establishment to her, and they were not mere overseers either, but owners of their own properties. If she had remained “single” up to now, it was of her choosing; none of her suitors had touched her heart, or, as she put it, “filled her eye.” But Robert Rutherford did; he stood forth in her imagination like a god. She had seen and loved him, just as Annie Palmer had done. She was as resolved to fight for possession of him as Annie Palmer was.
It was pleasant walking; the path led through leafy woods and the sun was not yet strong enough to cause discomfort. Besides, Millie was well accustomed to lengthy peregrinations; walking was second nature to her. But she was some time behind Mr. Ashman when she came to Palmyra, and as she neared the overseer’s house she saw at once something unusual was forward.
A sort of court was being held. Half a dozen men were being tried for plotting something; just what, no one was certain of, for the men were obstinately reticent and asserted that they had met the night before, in the hut in which they had been caught by Mr. Ashman, for purely social purposes. Ashman again and again pointed out to them that, if that had been so, they would not have ceased suddenly to talk when they, much to his annoyance, heard his footsteps, and would not have attempted to bolt, an effort which he had frustrated by flinging himself into the doorway and barring their egress with his body. That they had been planning some mischief, he averred, was beyond all doubt, and Mrs. Palmer, who stood listening to him and to them, nodded her head in agreement.
She was looking very grim and serious this morning. There was resentment in her heart against Ashman, who had spoken plainly to her about Robert Rutherford as they rode over to Palmyra; she had repressed her feelings (a matter of difficulty with her), and that repression was clamouring for explosive relief. There was relief to hand. These slaves were unruly, secretive, dangerous; at the very least they had no sort of right to be where they had been found by the overseer last night. To punish them severely might be to lose their services in field and sugar works for some time, but to order their condign chastisement, and to look on while the lashes were inflicted, was a joy and satisfaction which she could not at that moment forgo.
Annie ruled her people by terror, white and black alike. She had witnessed whippings for years and years, and her appetite had grown with what it fed on. The first flogging she had seen had made her ill, yet she had found a terrible fascination in it. She had gone to see another, and yet another; that first tasting of blood as it were, had awakened a certain lust in her which had grown and strengthened until it had become a powerful and abiding obsession. Had she lived fifty years before, when slaves could still be procured from the coasts of Africa, and when the law gave the slave-owner far more power over the life of a slave than it did in these days, she would sometimes have had an erring bondsman or woman whipped to death in her presence. At this moment her full lips were set hard, and the little lines running from the nostrils to the corners of her mouth were grimly perceptible. When she spoke it was in tones of cruel finality.
“Give them twenty-one lashes each: it ought to be more, but we want their labour today. Lay on the lashes well, though; make them feel! That will teach them to plot mischief again!”
There were two executors on this occasion, for one would be too tired to apply the blows with sufficient vigour on all the culprits condemned. Millicent had seen something of this sort before; she was sick with disgust and anger, but she did not forget her purpose. She worked her way as close to Ashman as she could, and then fixed her gaze upon his face with the idea of communicating to him by movements of her eyes that she wished to speak to him.
When the flogging was finished and the men ordered to resume their work immediately, Mrs. Palmer, casting a glance over those who had been summoned to witness this vindication of authority, observed Millicent staring at Ashman and, not remembering her, noticing too the girl’s good looks and superior attire, asked sharply: “Who is that young woman? Not one of my people, is she?”
Ashman turned and saw Millie for the first time. “No,” he said, “she’s old Takoo’s granddaughter.”
“Oh!” A note of interest crept into Mrs. Palmer’s voice. “I have heard of her; I must have seen her before, too.” She looked piercingly at Ashman.
“She evidently has come to you; she is staring at you. She is very pretty, John.”
“Treat her nicely; she looks as if she was worth it. You like pretty things. I shall see you at the Great House when you come up.”
Mrs. Palmer rode off with a knowing smile, a smile of great satisfaction. She had at once concluded that this girl wished to see Ashman for intimate reasons, upon which but one construction could be placed, and she was glad that Millicent was so well favoured. Ashman’s talk that morning had aroused in Mrs. Palmer’s heart a dangerous feeling towards him, but she wished to avoid trouble with him if it were at all possible. He was too useful to be dispensed with lightly.
“You want me?” briefly demanded Ashman. He was in something of a hurry and did not wish to devote too much of his time to a girl on whom he had smiled in the past, but who had shown only too clearly that for him she had not the slightest use, and was never likely to have.
“Yes, sir”—Millie strove to speak her best; “I want to speak to you—private.”
“Well, I haven’t much time. Come this way and tell me what it is.”
He took her out of the hearing of the people around, but he did not get off his horse to listen. “What is it?” he demanded impatiently, seeing that she hesitated.
She took her courage in both hands; she plunged into her tale without circumlocutory preliminary, though it had been in her mind to lead gradually up to the heart of it.
“You know that the new book-keeper sleep at the Great House last night? You know he was there wid Mrs. Palmer?”
“And what the hell has that got to do with you?” he burst out, scandalised at her telling him this, regarding it as a gross offence, partly because the very fact that she stated was rankling in his heart.
“Don’t hell me, Mr. Ashman!” returned Millicent with spirit. “Don’t hell me! I am not one of you’ slave that you can flog like a dog; and me gran’father know how to deal wid anybody who ill-treat me.”
“Your grandfather can go to hell as well as you; some day he will swing from a gallows. And don’t be too sure that I can’t flog you and make you pay a fine for it, if you are impertinent. Mrs. Palmer would have you flogged now, on the spot, if I only told her what you have just told to me!”
Millicent realised, with a sickening spasm of fear, that what he said was only too true; Mrs. Palmer might, in a paroxysm of fury, order her to be whipped until she bled, no matter what the after-consequences might be. She had done some daring things in the open light of day, and some still more terrible, horrifying things, by the dim light of candles within the heavy walls of Rosehall, if what was whispered about her was true. Millicent trembled.
But she held her ground and she spoke out with courage.
“Try it if you dare,” she volleyed back. “Try it, an’ as sure as there is a God in Heaven me gran’father will poison both you and she before the week is over.”
Ashman realised in his turn that that also was very probable. Takoo would undoubtedly take vengeance for any injury inflicted on his granddaughter: no one who knew him could doubt that. And he was considered in these parts a master in the art of poisoning. There was a white planter who had died in agony, and Takoo had been suspected—though nothing could be proved against him. Ashman temporised.
“If that is all you have come here to say, you had better clear out,” he ordered.
“I come here to tell you that—that you should try an’ stop this thing between Mrs. Palmer an’ the new book-keeper. If you don’t do it now it might be too late next week, and you won’t like that.”
“Oh,” he said grimly. “But you don’t care a curse about me; so it’s not in my interest you are speaking. What is your object?”
“What do you want? What are you telling me this for?”
Millicent dropped her eyes.
“I know you been friendly with Mrs. Palmer.”
“That is none of your business. I will thank you not to mention it again.”
“An’ if she love this new massa she not going to love you any more, an’ she may turn you away or——”
“Well, you know what happen sometimes when she done finish with anyone she used to love.” Millicent spoke in a whisper, as one very much afraid.
“Yes?” There was now a fierce harshness in Ashman’s voice. Again had Millicent echoed his own unpleasant thoughts.
“And”—desperately—”I like the young massa, an’ I am his housekeeper.”
“So that is it at last! Now we have the motive.” He thought a moment, then suddenly looked at Millicent with a new light in his eyes. His voice became friendly on the instant. “What can I do, Millie? I don’t see that I can do anything.”
“Can’t you turn him away as soon as you go back to Rosehall?”
“I? But she would take him back if she wanted to. I would only be making a fool of myself if I did that.”
“Then why don’t you tell him all about her, massa? You know everything. Tell him!”
“He wouldn’t believe me if I did; and he would repeat to her everything I said. It would be no use. But you—you could tell him. Does he like you?”
“I think so,” diffidently.
Ashman was ready with advice; he had made up his mind.
“That is good! Make him like you more. Don’t leave him if you can possibly help it. Stick to him all the time; show that you love him. You are a very pretty girl; I am sure he will like you. And tell him all that you know, Millie; tell a little now and little more later on; but rub it in as much as you can. And look here, don’t for God’s sake, let Mrs. Palmer know that you are his housekeeper, for she would give orders that you were not to put your foot into Rosehall or Palmyra again. You understand that, don’t you?”
He thought a moment. “I tell you what,” he said. “You’d better come up to my place sometimes as if you came to see me. That may make her think that you are coming to me.”
“But suppose Mr. Rutherford think so, too? He’s a stranger. What will him think of me?”
“He isn’t likely to have any thought like that; and you can always find a reason to give him. But if Mrs. Palmer imagines there is anything between you both—God help you! You ought to know that.”
“I know that,” said Millicent miserably. “She is hell. She is de devil himself. She is the worse woman in Jamaica!”
John Ashman looked at the girl with a lowering face, thinking that she was saying things distasteful to hear, almost unbearable. It was impertinence in her, stark impertinence which, in other circumstances, he would have regarded as intolerable, but did not the whole parish say the same? And did he not know it himself? Besides, he and Millicent must be allies now; they both had much at stake. “Do what I tell you,” he urged, “and now go back to Rosehall.”
She nodded understanding, turned and retraced her steps.