by Jessica Jewett
The authorities will find her body in the morning because I became a murderer tonight.
If history remembers me at all, my name will be forever soaked in Annie Pole’s blood. People will speculate my reasons for taking her life, of course. Some will say it was a crime of passion with no premeditation as if I picked up that axe in the heat of the argument. Some will say it was a crime of jealousy. Both are laughable at best. Annie was not worthy of my jealousy, nor was she worthy of the thing she tried to steal from me. What I did was no different than justifying an eye for an eye.
You steal my life. I steal yours.
It is commanded by God Almighty.
A year ago, I never dreamed I would be on the run as I am tonight. My reputation as one of the most popular stage singers in Boston afforded me the highest salaries in the country. I had a man who loved me with the zeal of no other and who I had just accepted a proposal. The hitch was his perpetual state of poverty, and so I offered to sacrifice my comfortable life for a series of engagements on stage in the Deep South to hurry our matrimonial union. I was desperately in love. I wanted to make him happy. What I wanted didn’t matter anymore.
“I do not know what I shall do without you,” my beloved had whispered to me the night prior to my departure. “I don’t know which is worse – a thousand miles of separation or not knowing when you will come home to me again.”
My heart broke with the same worries but I had long since grown accustomed to being the stronger one in our relation, so I painted on a sweet smile and caressed his cheek. “The time will pass before you know it,” I had promised. “Your studies will keep you far too occupied to miss me and when I return, we shall be married, never to part again.”
That night passed with more kisses and promises than I care to recount. They are now but a burden upon my heart.
The morning came and I left Boston on a train bound for Washington, the place of my birth. My blood sisters cried as if they might never see me again, but I promised I would return for my bridal trousseau just as soon as I could erase the debts that sent me south in the first place.
I feel now a gloom had settled upon my trip with my sisters’ tears and my mother’s pleadings to stay. A wicked storm chased my steamer all the way from the coast to Savannah like Satan himself coming for my very soul. The torture, locked away in my room too ill to eat, was nearly more than I could bear as the steamer violently threw itself from side to side. In those dark hours, I considered turning right around in Savannah and returning home, but the solitary reason I decided against it was the prospect of another steamer journey.
I found Georgia a strange place where the Negro was property, houses ill-equipped to keep out the winter cold (being shocked at all that there was even a cold season in Georgia), and social obligations far more strict than my home. I lived with distant relatives who had two daughters just beginning to blossom into womanhood and they constantly called upon me to teach them new songs to perform for their friends. It speaks to the wicked streak in my soul that I had no interest in doing a thing for people unless I was paid to do it.
Between performing five nights on stage every week, directing the music at the Presbyterian Church and attending to my host family’s social circle, I had very little time to write to my beloved and keep up with news from home. My beloved’s letters grew impatient and he began scolding me for my lack of communication. I was doing the best I could!
And so, it was that I began hearing about his cousin’s friend, Annie Pole, the daughter of a shopkeeper. I thought little of her at first. Her friendship kept his letters happier and not so hard on the weak points of my character. It went on that way for about a year.
Life suddenly fell into perspective for me, however, in February when my beloved wrote of a terrible illness preventing him from a promised visit. I knew it must be quite serious to make him pass up an opportunity to spend the winter with me away from the watchful eye of my father. Worry plagued me. What if he was ill enough to die? What if I was never going to see him again?
In the middle of the night, demons swimming in my mind, I packed my things and left Georgia to be with he who held my heart. There was little other choice in my mind.
After another stormy sea voyage, I found my footing once again in my home state of Massachusetts. The feverish desire to see my beloved and to care for his illness myself made me pass through my neighborhood on my way to his without stopping to visit loved ones. The closer I came to his home, the longer the miles felt until I feared going mad.
Perhaps, I briefly considered, there was another reason for my concern.
I instructed the carriage driver to bring me directly to the house, where I stopped the first pedestrian to cross my path.
“Excuse me. Do you know where I might find Lewis Carter?”
The student hesitated as if he recognized me and exchanged glances with his companion. “He went home ‘cross the river to his parents for the weekend,” he replied without looking me in the eye.
“He is well enough to travel?”
Another exchange of glances passed between the students and a knot materialize in my stomach.
“What are you not telling me?” I pressed more insistently.
The other student fumbled with his jacket. “Go to the Carter house right away, Miss Martin,” he answered like the Reaper himself.
Haunted by the way the young men advised me, I returned to the carriage shaken and paid the driver to take me across the Charles River. The journey passed by the carriage window in slow motion, my thoughts rising higher into a roar of fright. He had written that he was ill and now he was at home. Perhaps his illness was desperate enough to bring him home to await his death.
A deathly pallor was quite the opposite of what I found upon coming to the Carter property. Just as I approached the front porch, the sound of light airy giggling caught my ear and sparked my curiosity. I followed the sound with silent steps around the side of the great white house, slinking along the outer wall like on some clandestine mission.
“Don’t you dare!” the bubbly voice shrieked from the back of the property, though it sounded like an empty plea.
As I peered around the corner, I spied Lewis standing a few feet distant from a pretty, young blonde lady with a threatening grin upon his lips. His right hand launched a snowball at the blonde just as she took off in a sprint and a shriek. I stood in that spot stunned as she tripped in the snow and fell with Lewis mere steps behind her. Together they tumbled, his arms around her waist in an all too familiar fashion.
And then, I spied him kiss the blonde the way he used to kiss me.
The hushed voice startled me so that I jumped off my feet and hit my head on the outer wall of the house. Lewis’ youngest brother stood a few paces from me in the snow looking frightened from underneath his knitted cap. The boy was a mere fourteen-years-old, but he would have to do.
“Thomas, you shall tell me what in Heaven’s name is happening here. Do you understand me, young man?” My hand shot to the lapel of his winter coat and I dragged him to a safe distance. I trembled with fury but I tried not to frighten the boy more.
“I—I—I don’t really know,” he stammered, looking for a way out.
“Yes, you do!” I snapped. I grabbed fistfuls of his coat and glared into his young eyes which so looked like the man who promised his love. “Lewis tells you everything and we both know it, Thomas. Who is she? Is that Annie?”
Tom nodded dumbly.
Calmly, my grip relaxed on Tom’s coat though I seethed inside. I smoothed out the coarse fabric in a compulsive gesture.
“How long has she been here?” I asked with an uneasy timbre.
“She’s here for the winter, staying up at the boarding house.” Tom’s statements spilled from his lips in a great rush as if he feared being caught. “Mother and Father don’t know a thing about this but I saw Lewis kissing her in the stairwell three days ago. That’s all I know! I swear!”
With that, Tom bolted into the house and slammed the door behind him.
I did not let the family know I was in town. How could I allow myself the embarrassment, forced into pleasantries with the other woman? Instead, I walked the entire city of Boston alone that evening. I walked for hours in the driving Massachusetts snow until my skin went numb in the biting cold. Of all the people in the world, the last one I expected to betray me was Lewis, yet there it was right under my nose. Watching him kiss her in the snow replayed in my mind over and over again until my body fully clenched with rage. Knowing he kissed her in the same stairwell where he and I…
The rage boiled. I had to let it out somehow and pounding the piano keys wasn’t going to be suitable that time.
Lewis became my first target that night.
Long since had everyone gone to bed in the Carter house by the time I returned but I knew my way around in the dark with ease. I removed my shoes and slipped upstairs without making a sound, my stockings muffling my footsteps. I knew Lewis slept in the third room on the left, although I had never seen it with my own eyes. I thought about where Annie might be and my hand hesitated at his doorknob.
What if she was there in his bed at that moment?
Was he capable of such a horrific sin after all I had seen?
My rage outweighed my womanly fears, though, and I entered the dark room as quietly as I had entered the house. I came to Lewis’ bedside and watched him sleep for quite some time. It was horrifying to love that dear, peaceful face so deeply but know another woman had been freely enjoying kisses from those darling lips in my place. I wanted to slap him and beg him to stay with me at the same instant, thus becoming the exact sort of woman I loathed – the sort of woman who allowed a man too much power over her.
Lewis stirred, breaking my thoughts. He looked up at me with questioning eyes, their brightness shining through the dark.
I steeled myself against the deep voice I had so longed to hear.
“What are you doing here?” he asked as he shot upright on the edge of the bed. “Tom said he saw you but I didn’t believe him. My God, it’s really you…”
Lewis reached for me but I stepped back before he could touch me. His face tilted like a lost puppy and it took every ounce of my willpower to remain furious with him. There was no room for anguish. My wrath would win the day.
“I half expected to meet your whore here,” I said coldly, unmoving.
“—Of all the men who I allowed near me, you were the one I trusted.”
Lewis sighed and I swear I saw defiance and dismissal streak across his face as he stood and reached for his clothes. “Now honeybee, don’t overreact.”
“Don’t call me honeybee and don’t tell me not to overreact! I saw you kissing her! Little Tom saw you kissing her more than once! Did you think I was never going to know about it?” The more I spoke the ugly truth aloud, the higher-pitched my voice grew and I began trembling with the violence of a woman scorned. “How could you betray my trust this way?”
“It’s not what you think it is,” he said as he buttoned his shirt only halfway.
I felt my mouth gape in shock at his coolness. “How many other ways can it be, Lewis?”
“Keep your voice down,” he hissed in the dark.
Quickly, he struck a Lucifer and lit a candle that did not provide much light but I could see how perfectly calm his features were as he stood before me. It was not the face of a guilty man.
“You don’t know how hard it has been for me.”
“What do you mean?”
“You were there for me almost every day for two years and then suddenly you were gone on your crusade to assert your independence,” he said evenly. “What was I supposed to do?”
“What about waiting for me the way I’ve had to wait for you to finish your education? Do you think I want to wait until I’m old and gray to be married?” I bit my lip but tears swelled in my eyes against my better judgment. It had long since been my prerogative to never allow a soul to see me cry, yet I couldn’t stop myself.
“Betty…” Lewis pulled me close to his chest but my body froze with too potent of misery to return his advances or even push him away. His voice took a turn lower and gentler, something resembling the man I once knew. “Don’t you miss us at all?” He kissed my cheek. “Don’t you remember how we were together before you went away?” He kissed my brow then. “We had so much freedom. It doesn’t matter what happens with anyone else because I always come home to you. You are my little honeysuckle.”
I could not bear to look him in the eye. I knew if I saw the slightest flash of his perfect crystal blue eyes, I would forgive him on the spot and that thought infuriated me more than seeing his indiscretions. Never in my life had I allowed one person so much power over me. But he was right, of course. I missed us. I missed those stolen moments that would forever sink me in the estimation of any third person. Half the reason I came home was a desperate need for basic human affection and he was all too familiar with what I wanted. Too much power. Swallowing hard, I tried to steel my nerves against him.
“Missing us does not change what you’ve done,” I whispered. “Stop turning the blame onto me. I left to give us a better chance of marrying when you graduate, not to assert my independence as you call it. I sacrificed everything I held dear here at home for you, and this is how you repay me?”
“She means nothing.”
“You certainly had me fooled.”
Suddenly angry himself, Lewis grabbed my wrists and thrust me back from him. “Oh Betty, don’t be so difficult,” he groaned with his back turned. “I am working myself to the bone to finish school a year ahead of schedule for you. If I choose to indulge in a bit of a distraction to keep my sanity, then it is my choice. You should be thanking Annie for keeping my marks up in school.”
Any inclination I felt to forgive him shattered with those words. I thought I heard my actual heart crack into pieces so loud and present in my ears like the crack of gunshots. Instead of weeping the way other woman might do, my rage crested and exploded with my hand burning across the flesh of his face. He stumbled, grasping his cheek, shocked that someone so petite could nearly knock his feet out from under him.
“Thank her? Have you gone insane?” There was a strange growl in my voice that I had never heard before, as if it hadn’t come from my own throat. “Oh certainly, I must thank you Annie for freely enjoying intimacies with my fiancé while I was gone living with strangers and working for his happiness. What exactly do you expect of me? Am I to turn the other cheek when I smell her perfume on your skin or taste her in your kiss? You forget who we are, Lewis. We are not of that class and I am not going to turn the other cheek while you make a fool of me.”
Lewis leaned on the bedpost with his arms crossed over his chest, looking entirely too composed. “Listen to me, Betty. You have two choices. We can carry on as we are now or you can quit teaching, come home and let us get married my way.”
“No, Lewis, you have two choices. You either send Annie away tonight and never set eyes upon her again or I shall walk out of this house and never return,” I said with the most conviction I had ever felt. “Look at you. I don’t even recognize you anymore. You have grown a beard, you dress differently… It’s all her doing and I will not have it!”
His brow furrowed and his body shifted defensively. “Excuse me. Did we not already have this conversation once?” he shot back. “Does Peter McCullough ring any bells for you?” Suddenly he began shouting at the top of his voice, veins protruding from his neck with the force of it. “Do you have the slightest idea what you put me through? Do you? I forgave you! I let you put everything right again! You have no right judging me like this for the very thing you did not two years ago!”
“How dare you!” my voice boomed with equal ferocity. “How dare you suggest that I allowed him to touch me the way I saw you touch her! You son of a bitch!”
Somewhere in the room, I became aware that I was observing myself from a distance as I threw every manner of foul names at him. I had lost complete control of my senses. The only man I had ever trusted uncloaked his true heart before me that night and I was furious with myself because I hadn’t seen it coming.
Perhaps it was desperation to hold onto the last threads of the life I had fought so hard to obtain, or perhaps it was the hot rage coursing through my body, but I left Lewis’ home in a flurry of slammed doors. It was a peculiar slow motion thing that abducted my body as I made my way to the boarding house. I don’t actually recall the journey beyond constantly wiping the tears from my face, but by the time I reached that old building, the tears had given way to questions. They had given way to a primitive instinct to protect what was mine.
Blindly, I found myself standing at her door and knocking as if there for a friendly call. I can say with the fullest sincerity in truth that I hadn’t any idea what I meant to do – only that I knew I had to look her in the eye and ask her why.
The door popped open with a cheerful smiling young face that abruptly took a look of fright when she recognized me.
“Let me in,” I said quietly.
“This isn’t a good time,” she responded.
My brow arched in a questioning manner. “Oh? Why not? Have you got the other half of the university in there with you now?”
“Miss Martin, be fair—”
I reached out, grabbed a clump of her nightdress, and forced my way into the room before she could draw a second breath. “Oh but I think you know exactly what is fair and what is not, or you wouldn’t presently look at me with such shame in your eyes.”
“Let me go. You’re insane.” Her boney little fingers gripped my wrist. “Lewis wouldn’t condone this behavior.”
“He hasn’t seen fit to care what I think,” I said as I slowly backed the little blonde mouse into a wall, “so why should I care what he thinks anymore. My issue is with you here and now. I want to know why. You knew me before I left Boston. You knew what I meant to Lewis and he to me.” I let go of her and turned away before she could see the open wound in me.
“Yes, I knew,” she said with deliberate evenness. “I knew what you did to him by going to Georgia too. He needs someone here and now to love him every day, not just when it’s convenient.”
“And you were that person, weren’t you?” I shot back, spinning on my heels and glaring at her feigned innocence.
Something peculiar, if not entirely malevolent snapped in Annie’s demeanor just then, as she pushed away from the wall and paced around me. “Oh yes, it was absolutely me,” she said provocatively. “I have been here for the last year which is more than I can say for you. Do you know what he told me? He said I am far more open with my affections than you and he is never inclined to question my feelings.”
“You’re such a saint.”
Annie shoulders rolled back as maniacal laughter emanated from her throat. “Oh Betty, are you honestly so naïve to think he will wait for you when he has a perfectly warm body right here every day?”
“Shut your mouth,” I snarled, but she talked right over me.
“Do you know we swam together in the Charles before the snows came?” She giggled as my hands shook with indignation. “You know, all those years on the farm did him a great deal of good. He is quite fit, isn’t he? Oh but of course you wouldn’t know—”
The last thread of self-control I still possessed snapped like a tree branch in a nor’easter. I hardly recognized myself as I hurled myself at her, my hands squeezing her skinny little throat with every ounce of power I could muster. She had gone too far and now she had to pay. Once again, I found myself somewhere else in the room observing my body acting in a completely heinous manner, yet my spirit was not able to stop it.
“Just who do you think you are!” I screamed until my throat hurt.
Poor, poor Annie could not even draw enough breath to respond under my assault. Her fingers fruitlessly clawed at my wrists in desperation but I scarcely think twelve grown men could have pulled me away.
“How does it feel,” my voice screeched, “to feel your life slipping away? This is what you’ve done to me!”
A sudden fluid motion of strength I didn’t know I possessed propelled her frail little body across the room. Her nightdress whipped about like a flag as she stumbled across her bed and landed on the floor on the other side. Unsatisfied, I stalked around the bed and grabbed her by the front of her nightdress before she could rise to her feet.
“Please…” she choked, “don’t hurt me! Be rational!”
She may as well have been speaking an entirely different language for all of what rationality meant to me at that moment. I had always prided myself on being an extremely cool, collected person, the epitome of a well-bred lady but it seemed all of the tension that had built up in me exploded. My balled fist struck Annie square across the face again and again and again. I became deaf to her cries and the sounds of bones crushing in her face. Soon I felt the sticky warmth of blood on my hand. The strange sensation of relief consumed me as the crimson color caught my eye.
In a matter of moments, I had her pinned on the floor. Sharp pain barely registered but I realized she had gotten a hold of a fistful of my hair and ripped it clean from my scalp. I yelped, the offensive suddenly switching to the defensive. Blindly, I groped across the floor with my free hand looking for something, anything, to aid my cause. What exactly might cause was, I honestly could not say. Never for one moment was my intention to do what I did.
My hand came to something cold and heavy, a thing I instinctively knew would stun her long enough for me to get away. I whipped the object at the side of her head without realizing what it was. A gush of blood instantly sprayed across my dress from her head.
Annie Pole went limp.
The object protruded from her open skull and a strange grayness mixed with the spilling blood. I leapt from her body just as her life fluids began soaking into the heavy fabric of my skirt. What had I done? What was the object? Trembling, I bent over her lifeless body and pulled on it until it read itself with a sickening suction noise. It was a small hand axe. My God. What was she doing with a hand axe in her boarding house room?
I had killed her.
A hot flush came over my body, the kind of person feels when her own death is imminent. My own blood rushed loudly by my ears, only broken by the sound of the hand axe’s metallic thump on the floor. Her cloudy, lifeless eyes stared straight ahead. The last thing she saw before she died was the rage in my face.
All manner of biblical scripture roared in my head. I was going to hell.
That is precisely where I am now – the hell of a murderer on the run. I have lost the only man I have ever loved. I became a victim of the very jealousy that nearly ruined us once before. I have nothing but the solitude of tiny room on a ship bound for the Mediterranean.