SING WITCH, SING DEATH
by Roberta Gellis
Had the witches of Tremaire brewed up a sudden storm so the Earl
Just and his eldest son would drown? Was the coven determined that
inherit the estate because his mother had been one of them? Or was
planning to be rid of the St. Justs, root, stock, and branch?
Lady Pamela Hervey turned her head and strained her eyes. Had she really heard that word, or was it a whisper of wind, a distorted bird cry? She stood listening while the light grew dimmer, not sure whether or not she was frightened but quite certain she was wildly excited, vividly alive. Silent, still listening, she lifted her face to the wailing wind, lifted her eyes to the wheeling sea birds.
Witch. The word had not been repeated, but Pamela considered it. She did not believe in witchcraft, not in this enlightened year of 1816, but here and now anything was possible. For days she had been ravished by the wild, unbelievable beauty of Cornwall. First she had been fascinated by the improbable scenery, then entranced, and finally enslaved.
It was not pretty. The hills were barren and untamable. Fangs of rock gleamed through the broken earth and sparse vegetation. There was no timber. Gnarled and distorted by the wind that never seemed to stop, the dwarfed trees stretched longing arms in toward the warm and fertile heart of England.
Again and again they had passed areas in which the earth was ripped open to expose naked ribs of rock where tin and copper were torn from its bowels. Yet even that was not ugly. It was hard and grim, as were the visages of the few people they saw, but somehow both suited the country—and therefore both were beautiful.
The landscape might well inspire a belief in witches. Even the rich valleys that threaded the barren hills and were both well-timbered and well-cultivated had a mysterious rather than a peaceful air. Pagan spells, said in the dark of the moon, could easily account for the abundance of those glades nestled under the bitter crags. Here, where the wind keened and where black shadows were cast by the broken hills even when the sun shone, one could believe in witches and warlocks.
Pamela laughed softly, the sound hardly audible above the sibilant whisper of the steady wind. Perhaps the bittersweet pleasure of a short escape from a situation that was growing steadily more unpleasant was causing her imagination to smolder. Nonetheless, she had an impulse to investigate the sound; surely she had heard something.
She had not yet moved, however, when the beat of hooves forestalled her intention. She drew to the side of the road, her generous mouth curving in a smile of amusement at her childish desire for “something to happen.”
Of course, a day spent in the coach traveling with her employer was enough to disorder anyone’s imagination. Not that it was Hetty’s fault. No one could help being travel sick.
Pamela considered her employer objectively. To give her credit, she did not deliberately torment her hired companion; to give her even more credit, she did not vent her resentment on Pamela either. And, from Hetty’s viewpoint, she had much to resent. She had been the only daughter of one of the wealthiest families of the West Indies. Then an honorable, the youngest son of the Earl of St. Just, had been “bought” to be her husband.
Pamela frowned slightly. That was an ugly way to put it, although it was perfectly true. The trouble was that Hetty had explained it that way. Not in public, only privately to Pamela; still, it should not have been said at all.
Am I being a hypocrite, Pamela wondered, and then decided the criticism was just. Marriages of convenience were extremely common, but they worked out better if both parties allowed the original basis of their union to become obscured by time and by a growing respect and regard.
In any case, the fact that Hetty did voice such things, and not always in private, and that she had a tendency to display her wealth in vulgar and ostentatious dress, accounted for the fact that Pamela, a lady by birth, was in the position of companion, and for their presence in Cornwall. Hetty, countess though she was, was not a lady. Pamela had been hired to give her the outward semblance of one.
The situation was very uncomfortable for everyone involved. Hetty, Countess St. Just, bitterly felt that she had been betrayed. When her husband’s father and two elder brothers had died in a tragic accident, making Vyvyan the earl, she thought she would come to England and take her place in the forefront of society automatically. Instead she found herself being hustled off to Cornwall.
On the other hand, Pamela understood Lord St. Just’s position. Partly he did not wish to be embarrassed by his wife, but largely he was concerned for her sake. His friends and sporting companions would accept him no matter what Hetty did. If she tried to force her way into the ton, however, she would be ostracized. In fact, although Pamela needed employment because her father’s folly had left her penniless, she would not have taken a position so fraught with explosive qualities had she not felt sorry for both Hetty and Lord St. Just.
He was an interesting man, a giant with eyes of a strange clear green, startling against a sun-browned complexion. A hard mouth, distorted by bitter lines, aged his face, and his whole being gave forth an aura of enormous energy forcibly leashed.
Pamela understood that; her own life, of late, had been one long effort to curb her nature. It was, indeed, an echo of St. Just’s frustrated energy that had sent Pamela out to fight the wind on the lonely road. Tall, deep-bosomed, and broad-shouldered, Lady Pamela’s figure told the same tale of leashed energy—only she did not have the outlets of a man.
Under her pelisse she was dressed most fashionably, but without the bows and knots of floss with which most women adorned their clothing. Her hair, which was very long and thick, was looped in two heavy coils, concealing her ears and framing her handsome, large-featured face to perfection.
Pamela knew she was good-looking, knew she dressed well, knew she moved with a leonine grace that drew eyes—just as well as she knew that she was too big to interest men who, in these days, were oriented to desire delicacy in a woman. Fortunately, in spite of her size, Hetty had taken to Pamela and had shown herself far more docile to her companion’s tutoring than to anyone else’s.
Hetty’s travel sickness was the greatest misfortune, Pamela thought. Not only had it condemned them to poor accommodations and sent Lord St. Just scouting ahead to find a better inn, but it had exposed problems between the earl and countess of which Pamela would have preferred to remain in ignorance.
She had had plenty to think about from the very first day on. Hetty had been sick and had forced Pamela to stop the carriage so often that St. Just, who was riding ahead, had returned to remonstrate with his wife. Pamela got down to make room for him and heard him say, “I am sorry you are unwell, Hetty, but it will take months to make this journey if you do not control yourself.”
“I don’t want to make any journey,” Hetty snapped. “I want to go back to London.”
“You know we cannot do that,” the earl replied sharply. “It is not sensible. We would merely have tripled the travel, because we would have to set out again tomorrow.”
“Then let me go back alone.”
Pamela had seen the countess’s pale eyes light with fury, and started off down the road to stretch her long legs after her confinement in the carriage. Her relations with Hetty and her husband would be much simpler if she could pretend to be unaware of their disagreements.
She was not quite far enough away, however, to avoid hearing Hetty scream, “Murderer! I hate you! You’ll kill me for my money as you killed—”
The door of the carriage slammed shut, and the words became unintelligible. Pamela started back toward the coach. Everyone would be out of temper after this scene, and she did not wish to cause any more trouble by delay. Hetty seemed to say the most inexcusable things in a rage. She would have to be impressed with the need to govern her temper better.
When St. Just leaped down from the coach a few moments later, however, Pamela could almost credit that there was some truth in Hetty’s accusation. The narrowed, glittering eyes and thinned mouth made him look very dangerous.
“How much of that did you hear?” he asked in a vicious undertone.
Pamela at first considered telling him that she had taken a walk and heard nothing, but she could not.
“Too much,” she replied, “but do not trouble about it. I know hysterics when I hear them.”
The overlying expression of fury had disappeared from St. Just’s face, and Pamela was surprised to see how much pain it covered. The earl had given her no reason to believe that he loved his wife. In fact, he had once remarked that he was “obliged” to Hetty.
This confirmed what Hetty had already told Pamela of the marriage, as being one of convenience. One is never “obliged” to a person one loves. The consideration Lord St. Just had always shown for Hetty had not shaken the belief that he did not care for her; it had merely improved Pamela’s opinion of him and confirmed her conviction that he was a gentleman.
“I wish there was less truth in it,” he muttered.
Pamela felt a sudden chill of fear, but rejected it along with Hetty’s remark as ridiculous. She forced a laugh.
“Do you mean to tell me that you are a murderer?”
“In fact, if not in deed, I suppose I am.”
The green eyes were strangely misted and withdrawn. St. Just shuddered and rubbed his hands together as if they were cold; then he focused his eyes on her.
“That’s the devil of a thing to say,” he added with a twisted smile, “but I have never deliberately planned a man’s death for my own profit—in spite of what you may hear.”
The hoofbeats Pamela had heard became loud enough to break into her memory. They slowed as they approached her, and she could make out the shape of horse and rider even in the deepening twilight. As she expected, it was Lord St. Just.
“Lady Pamela,” he exclaimed harshly, “what are you doing alone here? It is dangerous to be abroad in the dark of the moon in Cornwall. Put your foot on my boot. Give me your hand.” When she had done so, he pulled, and Pamela rose smoothly to sit on the saddle in front of him. “Hetty will be miserable if you have left her alone for long.”
It had seemed like a long walk, but on horseback the inn soon come in sight. Pamela went to Hetty at once. The countess was sitting huddled in a chair, so subdued that she did not even ask where Pamela had been.
“Vyvyan, I do not like this inn,” she burst out as soon as St. Just came through the door.
Her husband sighed. “I knew you would not, Hetty,” he said in a voice that, surprisingly, held no exasperation. “I rode ahead to see if there was a brighter or larger place we could stay, but there was nothing.”
“Vyvyan, I’m frightened.”
“Cornwall is a frightening place in the dark of the moon, but no one could wish to hurt you, Hetty. You are a stranger here. You have neither made, nor marred, nor meddled. Whatever is in the air is not directed at you.”
“Voodoo, Vyvyan? Here?”
Pamela was startled at how close Hetty’s thoughts had paralleled those she had when she believed she heard “Witch” float by on the wind. Hetty had given the West Indian name for witchcraft, of course, but Pamela noticed how St. Just’s lips tightened. It was as if he had forgotten that Hetty was familiar with the aura surrounding witchcraft.
“Not really,” he replied to his wife’s question, “although it is something along the same line. Cornwall is a very backward place. Old things die hard here.”
“Vyvyan,” Hetty teased, the fear dying out of her face. “Are you telling me you are a believer?”
“I certainly believe that the covens have power among the locals. There can be no good in offending these people,” St. Just replied rather coldly.
“But what is done about this, Lord St. Just?” Pamela asked, thinking that it was time a less personal and more general note was needed in the conversation.
“Very little can be done. The gentry are very seldom troubled by the covens in the first place. In the second, they would not care to make laughingstocks of themselves by bringing such charges in this day and age. The witches’ power is over the ordinary people—farmers and fishermen, because the witches sing fertility to the crops and quiet to wind and wave—and the simple folk will not say a word against them.”
“I can understand why the local people wish to keep on good terms,” Pamela said. “The wind and the sea are certainly of importance to them, and I must say that the valleys are unusually fertile.”
“Oh, Pam, now he has you believing it,” Hetty giggled.
“Not, perhaps, in the efficacy of the spells,” Pamela replied seriously, “but if the local people believed that someone had offended a coven and the witches then refused to cast their spells, or threatened to cast the wrong ones, the people might become dangerous.”
They were called to dinner before Hetty could reply, and spoke of trivialities while they were served. When they were at last able to rid themselves of the obsequious innkeeper, Hetty looked disdainfully at the dishes before her.
“You will have to get a cook from London, Vyvyan. You know I cannot eat such crude fare.”
“It is impossible to get London servants to come to Tremaire. You know that, Hetty. Why, your maid gave up her post even when you offered to double her wage when she learned she would need to stay in Cornwall for near a year.”
“You mean after you had threatened her if she dared to come!” Hetty spat. “I do not believe that London servants will not come to Cornwall. You do not want them, Vyvyan. You want me to be isolated, surrounded by your creatures. All this talk of witches and Cornwall being dangerous! I am sure you mean it to be dangerous to me. You want me dead like my brother so that you—”
“Hetty!” the earl bellowed, leaping to his feet and raising his hand.
Hetty cowered, and Pamela interposed her own strong body between the countess and her husband.
“Do not dare strike her,” she hissed. “She is sick and tired and overwrought.”
His green eyes glowed with rage, but Pamela’s bright hazel ones met them unflinchingly, and his hand dropped.
“Come, Hetty,” she said softly. “I will take you to your room and give you your drops. Tomorrow you will feel much better.”