The White Witch of Rosehall

Chapter 1: The New Book-Keeper

Robert Rutherford reined in his horse at the stone and iron gates that opened on the estate; half a mile away, on an eminence that commanded a wide, sweeping view of canelands, hills and sea, stood a building, the fame of whose magnificence he had heard when in the town of Montego Bay, some ten miles to westward.

White in the golden light of the sun it stood, the Great House of Rosehall. It dominated the landscape; it imposed itself upon the gaze of all who might pass along the road that ran in front of the property; it indicated opulence. Young Rutherford knew that it represented the pride and arrogance of the planter caste which still ruled in Jamaica, and whose word, on its own plantations, carried all the authority and sanction of an arbitrary will scarcely curbed by laws passed in recent years for the protection of the bondsmen. Behind him, a few paces from the outer edge of the road, rolled and glittered a vast expanse of sea, all blue and purple, with snowy breakers rolling lazily to the shore. Above him stretched a vault of azure flecked with clouds. It was eight o’clock in the morning. The month was December; the year, 1831.

The cane, full-grown, flowed up to within a short distance of the Great House, a spreading carpet of vivid green. In the midst of it, to his right, he saw the sugar works, from the chimneys of which floated and wavered in the breeze long columns of grey smoke. To the left he spied a building on rising ground which he guessed to be the overseer’s house; and on this side also, well within sight of the building, he saw a village of huts embowered in greenery. He had been long enough in Jamaica to recognise in this the slaves’ quarters.

He twitched his reins and the horse moved forward.

As he slowly trotted up the long path leading southwards he noted the slaves, clothed in coarse blue osnaburg, busy cutting canes in the fields, women as well as men armed with scythes and machetes, and hacking at the roots of the slender green-topped plants. Wagons drawn by oxen and by mules stood in the paths, several feet wide, which divided field from field; into these wagons the workers heaped the canes they cut, and as he passed he saw some of these vehicles moving on their journey towards the sugar mills, with a creaking and groaning of axles and amidst shouts from sable drivers who ran alongside of them cracking ox-thonged whips four yards long and calling to the cattle by name. He saw other men armed with whips also which they brandished menacingly, though not at the oxen and the mules. These were the slave-drivers, sturdy fellows whose duty it was to see that the slaves did not loiter or slacken at their work; yet in spite of them some of the labourers lifted curious eyes to gaze for a moment at the strange white man who seemed to be going up to the Great House where lived the lady owner of these domains. The drivers glanced at him also, but asked no questions, for he was white and therefore one of the masters who gave commands and put questions, and was not there to be interrogated by such as they.

But before he had achieved half the distance to the house he perceived a white man riding towards him. This was the only other man on horseback discernible, a young man like himself, the estate book-keeper doubtless. The man cantered up, made a careless gesture of greeting, then inquired: “You are Robert Rutherford?”

“Yes; you expected me?”

“The overseer told me last night that you would be here today; we expected you rather earlier, though; at daybreak, in fact. You are going to be told you are late, Rutherford.”

“I had to ride from the Bay; I shall be up in time tomorrow morning. You are my colleague?”

“Yes. My name is Burbridge, and I have been doing the work of two book-keepers for the past week. They cleared out the other man as soon as they thought you were nearly here. You see that house?” He pointed in the direction of the overseer’s residence. “That’s where Mr. Ashman, the busha,[1] lives, and I know he is there now. You had better go up there and report to him. I’ll see you later.”

“One moment, Burbridge,” Rutherford stopped him: “Give me a hint as to the situation here before I meet the boss, will you? Nice place this?”

“I have stayed with you too long as it is, old fellow,” replied Burbridge quickly. “My job is waiting on me; all I am supposed to do—if I am even supposed to do that—is to give you directions where to find the busha. I don’t want to be blamed if I can help it. And look here, don’t, like a good chap, repeat anything that I have said to you, will you?”

“Well, you haven’t said anything,” smiled Rutherford, “so I can’t repeat it. This seems a strict sort of place, doesn’t it?”

“You’ll find out all about it for yourself,” answered the other man, who all the time had been closely scrutinising Rutherford. “You have never been in the West Indies before: I can see that.”

“No; I have come to learn planting and estate management.”

“Humph. Well, you’ll learn. I must be off now.”

“Just a word. Shouldn’t I go up and see the owner?”

“Mrs. Palmer? You, a book-keeper, to call on her? She doesn’t have much truck with the likes of us, Rutherford, unless—well, you’d better ride on and make your apologies to Mr. Ashman for being late, and then he’ll probably send you back to me to set you to work. I am senior book-keeper, you know. Where’s your luggage?”

“Coming by ox-cart from Montego Bay. It will be here some time today.”

“See you later.”

Burbridge cantered off, but not before Rutherford had observed his keen glance in the direction of the Great House and the overseer’s residence. Evidently the senior book-keeper was anxious lest anyone should have seen him wasting time. Rutherford smiled, a little amused. But he did not quite like the atmosphere of the place.

Yet he had heard of the hardships to which book-keepers on West Indian sugar estates were subjected as a rule. A sort of chief slave-driver, the book-keeper was in some way a slave himself. He had an inferior status, a poor salary, and (as he had heard) unlimited labour. But Rutherford’s spirits were unruffled by all this, for he was here to learn, and schooling, he realised, meant discipline. He had seen Burbridge eyeing his clothes with a bewildered air; they were certainly much superior to those worn by the ordinary book-keeper or overseer. Burbridge himself was very poorly clad and seemed to think that any book-keeper who got himself up as though he were a person of means was either mad or looking for trouble. He was clearly puzzled as to how to place the new-comer.

Young Rutherford pursued his way in the direction indicated, and soon came to the steps of the overseer’s house. Three or four savage dogs rushed out the instant they perceived him, barking and showing their teeth at him; then a black boy quickly descended the steps and ran up with the question: “What massa want?”

“Mr. Ashman; is he in?”

“Yes, massa; massa come in?”

Massa would; he leaped off his horse and followed the boy to the veranda, where he was bidden to wait. A moment afterwards a stern-looking man of about forty-five years of age emerged from the interior of the house jacketless, his soiled corduroy trousers thrust into the tops of knee-boots, a day’s growth of beard on his chin, and an inquisitorial, imperious look in his eyes.

“Yes, sir, you want me? Will you come in? Your name is——?”

“I am Rutherford, Mr. Ashman—the new book-keeper.”

Mr. Ashman figuratively stopped dead in his tracks; his manner of welcoming host giving place instantly to that of a plantation boss who was accustomed to being a despot.

“Oh! Why are you so late this morning?”

“I must apologise; I couldn’t get away earlier.”

“What ship you came by? I didn’t know one was expected yesterday or today.”

“I came a week ago.”

“Then why the hell didn’t you report at once?”

“Because I was not to turn in before today; that was arranged when I left England. We made a quicker voyage than we had anticipated, and when I got to Montego Bay I found I had a week on my hands. I brought a letter of introduction to Mr. M’Intyre, the rector. I stayed with him.”

“Letter of introduction, eh? The rector, eh? Well, you are a stranger with a lot to learn. But book-keepers don’t go about this country with letters of introduction, and many a man has lost his job for being an hour late. And jobs are not easily picked up here, let me tell you.”

“Perhaps not. Do you mean that I am to lose my job before I have even found it?”

“Damn my soul” shouted the overseer, genuinely astonished, “is this the way you are going to begin?”

“I expected a different sort of greeting,” said Rutherford quietly, but with a glint of anger in his eyes; he was striving to keep his temper under control. “I am a book-keeper, yes; but I might be treated courteously. I have just arrived and you keep me standing on your veranda as if I were a nigger slave.”

“Perhaps,” retorted Mr. Ashman, “you would like to ride up to the Great House and be received in Mrs. Palmer’s drawing-room? Now look here, don’t commence by playing the fool or you won’t last on Rosehall, I can tell you. If it wasn’t that you were engaged in England you would be going out of this estate now in double-quick time! You seem to be quite a high and mighty gentleman, but you have a lot to learn and you’d better see about learning it damn quick. Sam!”

“Yes, massa!” The boy made his appearance suddenly; he had been listening to the colloquy behind the door.

“Take this backra[2] to the book-keepers’ quarters and show him his room. When you have been there and have had something to eat,” he continued, addressing Rutherford, “Sam will take you to Burbridge, who is your senior, and who will tell you what you have to do today—and tonight. And remember in future that the overseer of an estate in Jamaica is used to being respectfully spoken to by his book-keepers, and when you address me don’t forget to say ‘sir.’ English airs and graces won’t do here!”

Ashman turned on his heel and went inside; Rutherford silently walked down the steps, mounted his horse, and followed Sam, who ran in front towards the sugar works, some half a mile away. Quite evidently, thought Robert, a book-keeper did not count for much here; well, he had been given a very clear hint of that by the Rev. Mr. M’Intyre and his family. His father had not known of these conditions, or of a surety he had never suggested this job to him. Yet it would be worth his while to stick it through. After all, he would not be a book-keeper for more than a couple of years, if as long.

At twenty-five years of age one usually sees the world through the brightest of tinted glasses, especially if one is healthy, well-connected and not ill-endowed with means. On the island of Barbados was a sugar estate, one of the largest there, which belonged to Robert Rutherford’s father. The older man had never himself been to the West Indies; the property had been left to him by an old uncle who had lived nearly all his life in Barbados and had had no legitimate children. Mr. Rutherford never contemplated the possibility of his going to look after the estate himself; that was a task, he said, for a younger man, and Robert, his heir, was naturally and almost inevitably that man. But Robert knew nothing about planting or estate management; he was still young, he should acquire some experience in those arts. To send him out to Barbados at once would, Mr. Rutherford conceived, be a great mistake. In the first place there was still in charge of it an attorney who, so far as could be gathered, was tolerably honest; he could continue to perform the necessary work of supervision for some time. But if Robert went out to him to learn the business, the fact that he was his father’s son and the heir to the property might prevent the attorney from putting the boy through the mill, while overseers, book-keepers and the rest would naturally look up to the young man, flatter him and endeavour to spoil him; thus, with the best will in the world, Robert might learn very little. Mr. Rutherford knew that his son was made of good stuff, but he did not want him to be exposed to sycophancy and coddling when he should be acquiring useful knowledge and experience by practical work. So it occurred to him that Robert should go to some other West Indian colony to acquire the knowledge he would need for the management of a sugar plantation, whether he should afterwards decide to reside permanently on his own in Barbados or to visit it at frequent intervals.

This view was placed before the younger Rutherford, and he fell in with it immediately. Robert was fond of his father, liked to please him, and thought it would be excellent fun if he, a future West Indian proprietor, should begin planter life in the humble office of book-keeper—for that was what, he was told, it was best to do. Of the duties of a book-keeper neither he nor his father had the slightest conception; but when a firm of West Indian sugar brokers in London, who had been approached by the elder Rutherford in the matter, informed the latter that they could secure for Robert a position on the Rosehall estate in Jamaica, the transaction was settled at once, although the post was worth only fifty pounds a year, with board and lodging. Robert Rutherford had all the money he was likely to need in Jamaica; the salary was of no consideration. But this was to be kept private, for the boy must win his spurs like any other young fellow. Mr. Rutherford was quite enthusiastic about this. He himself had never been called upon to begin on the lower rungs of the ladder, he had never worked hard in all his life. But he had a great admiration for those men who had carved out their own fortune, and he wanted Robert, in a manner of speaking, to stand in the ranks of such self-made heroes.

The Rev. John M’Intyre, rector of St. James’s Church in the town of Montego Bay, had known Mr. Rutherford years before at Oxford. To him was sent by Robert a letter telling of the Rutherford plans and enjoining secrecy, for the reasons given above. Mr. M’Intyre, knowing the local situation, did not at all approve of those plans, but said nothing. He liked the young man at once and, learning that he was not expected at Rosehall for a week, invited him to stay a week at the rectory, at the same time advising him not to make his arrival known to the Rosehall people before the day he was expected. He would not have thus invited an ordinary book-keeper; such a one could have no social status. And had Robert, the son of his old friend, been dependent on this job for a living and a future, Mr. M’Intyre would have counselled him to push on to Rosehall on the very day of his arrival, being aware that a book-keeper must not claim any leisure save that allowed to him by his employer. But he did not imagine that Robert would remain long at Rosehall, or in Jamaica; and he hoped that even if the boy chose to stay in the colony it would not be as a member of the Rosehall staff. That was the one estate of all others that he would have warned his old friend against had his opinion been asked in advance. As it was, he thought it wisest to say nothing; Robert must decide for himself now that he had come out to the colony. He was a man and must work out his own salvation.

Robert Rutherford, twenty-five years of age, tall, strongly built, with laughing grey eyes, a kindly, humorous mouth, straight nose and curly brown hair, was a handsome young man, even a distinguished-looking one. He was a graduate of his father’s university, an athlete; not brilliant as a scholar, though he had taken his degree, he yet had done some reading and had travelled for a year in France and Italy after his graduation. The voyage out to Jamaica had tanned his hands and face but slightly; the clothes which he wore, and which he had been told would be required in his job, were tailor-made and of excellent quality; he looked exceedingly well in them and was fully aware of that. His hat was a good felt with wide brim, and he wore it with an air; his knee-boots were of the best leather. The grey horse that he rode was his own; he had bought it at a good price some days before. In spite of his curt and even rude greeting by the overseer this forenoon, therefore, he was feeling satisfied with the world and not dissatisfied with himself; he could not pretend that he appreciated the atmosphere of Rosehall, but on the other hand he was conscious of a sense of adventure, an anticipation of interesting and strange experiences, and he never doubted that he would be equal to any situation that might arise.

Robert did not consciously realise that, had he been an ordinary poor fellow endeavouring to make his way in the world, his feelings would probably have been very different; that instead of his present composure he would have been dreadfully depressed. He did not admit to himself (though the thought must have been somewhere at the back of his mind) that if the worst came anywhere near to the worst he could always shake the dust of this estate off his feet and fare forth to hunt for pastures new. What he did think was that, in spite of the apparent churlishness of people on this plantation, he would do his work cheerfully and to the best of his ability (which he felt was of a commendably high standard), and thus would please both the old man and himself. His mother (dead now these last five years) had always striven to please her husband and had always impressed upon her son the virtue of doing so too. Mr. Rutherford had inspired both wife and son with a real and abiding affection for him, and he amply deserved it. Robert knew that if he quitted Jamaica altogether and frankly told his father that life in the West Indies was impossible, the older man would feel that his boy had honestly tried his utmost and was not to be blamed. Therefore he was determined to do his utmost.

  1. An overseer.
  2. A white man.


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