The White Witch of Rosehall
The three book-keepers were sitting at dinner; it was about eight o’clock. A half-moon glowed in the east with the greenish tinge of the tropics. An hour or so later Mr. Rider would take up his station in the still-house; now he was making the acquaintance of young Rutherford; Burbridge he knew already.
Robert was in a silent, surly mood. He had lunched that day with Annie, as arranged, but the lunch had been a depressing function. Each party had something to say to the other, but had refrained from saying it; each felt that a barrier had sprung up between them since the night before; each was conscious of it, but wished to disguise the fact from the other.
Annie had, casually as it seemed, asked him if he were coming to the Great House that night; he had answered, no, he did not think so, and she had not pressed him to come. Indeed, she had seemed relieved at learning that that was not his intention. She had made no reference to the scene of the night before, although it would have been very natural for her to have done so. He himself did not, although he would have liked to ask one or two questions. But she was hardly the person whom he could question as to the whereabouts of Millicent.
He had gone about his work that day with a dogged determination, though he had no inclination for it. Psyche was looking after his room and his food now; he had asked her that morning to undertake that duty. Rider was to live in the small building attached to the overseer’s residence, but would take his meals with the other book-keepers. At this moment he was trying to appraise Robert; already he had heard a good deal about him from Burbridge.
The talk on the estate that day had been of the appearance of the strange apparition so distinctly seen by many persons on the previous night. The news had spread with the rapidity of a cane-piece conflagration; there was not a slave, not a white man, on Rosehall who had not heard of it by this; on Palmyra also it was being discussed. The people could think and speak of nothing else. The slaves were frightened. The Horse with three feet, luminous, ominous, of which they had heard all their lives, and which they believed to be an infernal spirit, dominated their imaginations now that it had been seen by so many living witnesses.
“And you yourself saw it?” said Burbridge to Rider, not for the first time.
“As I have said more than once before, yes. It was very distinct, very horrible; it had only three legs, and the foreleg seemed to grow out of the creature’s chest; it was just as negro tradition and superstition have described the Three-footed Horse as being.”
“Then there is such a fiend,” muttered Burbridge, troubled; “and it is seen on this estate of all others!”
“Is there such a fiend?” inquired Rider, with a slight smile.
“You just said that you yourself saw it,” Robert reminded him gloomily. “You should be far more convinced than we.”
“I am merely wondering if it was a fiend,” Rider explained. “That I did see something, I admit. Exactly what was its nature, I am not prepared to say. It may have been a fiend or a ghost, that is possible. But, again, it may not have been.”
“Then what was it?” demanded Burbridge irritably.
“I do not profess to know; I think I have made that quite clear. But I heard today that these strange visions appear only when something dreadful is about to happen on this property. You have heard that too, haven’t you, Burbridge?”
“Then I suppose, we had better be looking forward to trouble, to dreadful occurrences?”
Burbridge glanced doubtfully at Robert. He did not want anything he said to be repeated to Mrs. Palmer.
The glance was intercepted; Robert spoke out.
“From what I have heard,” he said bitterly, “dreadful things seem a specialty in this place. No doubt all these tales are lies; they get on one’s nerves nevertheless. I am beginning to regret that I ever came to Rosehall.”
“So soon?” interjected Rider lightly. “Well, being sober and in my right mind—a dreadful state that will not last for long—I am inclined to agree that you are right. I can speak out plainly, you see, Rutherford, for my tenure of office here is not likely to be lengthy. I am very fond of resigning.”
“You would not be here if I were doing my work properly,” said Robert, with a touch of self-contempt.
“Please continue in your bad course for a little while yet,” urged Rider. “I need to recuperate before I become a gentleman of insobriety and leisure again. Pardon the impertinence, Rutherford, but you have people in England, haven’t you—people in good circumstances?”
“Yes; why do you ask?”
“No offence intended, old man; but of course I know you are from a ’varsity, like myself, and your sort don’t become book-keepers—if our friend Burbridge will excuse a remark which is not intended to be rude. I am a book-keeper now, but that is because of circumstances. “How art thou fallen, O Lucifer, son of the morning!” And I have no people in England to whom I could turn; a nephew and a couple of cousins only, and their interest in me is very properly nil. They do not specialise in the appreciation of black sheep. You are different. And since you have begun to regret coming to Rosehall you will certainly go on regretting that you ever came to Jamaica. The logical sequence is that you should leave Jamaica as soon as you can. But men, alas, are not guided by logic!”
Robert smiled, in spite of his depression; he rather liked this quaint parson who was so obviously down and out, and yet who spoke so well and seemed so intelligent.
“You take a great interest in me, a stranger,” he replied.
“I do. Both sober and drunk I am one of the most curious of men. I don’t want to appear a Nosey Parker and that sort of thing, but I have heard all about last night’s little business in these rooms; it is all over the estate. And that, coming just before the appearance of that peculiar-looking ghostly animal, suggests trouble. I am not courageous! I would always avoid trouble precipitately; hence my warning to you. I don’t think you are quite ensnared by the tropics yet?”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, there are men like me who, having once got all this sunlight into their bodies, and a good deal of the fermented cane juice into their veins, can never get rid of the fascination of the tropics. Add to those influences a pretty native girl or two, and they are completely lost. They are bound to these lands for ever. I have escaped the wiles of the feminine sex; the bottle has been too powerful a rival to them. But I am doomed to remain here; and so is Burbridge; with him it is financial disabilities mainly. You—you don’t seem to suffer from all these hindrances and drawbacks; therefore I don’t see why the devil you are here.”
“But I am.”
“Quite so. And last night—all right Burbridge; our friend Rutherford is not the sort that blabs; you need not signal caution—last night showed that you are in a somewhat dangerous position. But you can escape from it if you wish.”
Robert did not appreciate this direct interference with his affairs. He wondered if Rider could have any ulterior motive for speaking as he did? Had Ashman set him to it? He threw an angry, suspicious look at the ex-clergyman, who understood it in part, but smiled easily.
Rider sat facing the door. He rose quickly just then, staring towards the dusty path that led from the gate up to the Great House.
“Our mistress seems to be going for a ride,” he observed, indicating a figure on horseback which, followed by another, was riding towards the gates.
That it was Annie was quite evident. Another rider attending her was probably her boy.
“This is the first time since I have been here that she has left Rosehall at night,” said Burbridge, surprised, after the two figures on horseback had passed through the gates.
“An unusual occurrence, eh? Then the object of her ride must be unusual also. That is a very singular and striking woman,” said Rider.
The lady and her attendant had now turned their horses’ heads in the direction of Montego Bay. They rode at an easy pace; later on, the road being bad, they would have to go at a walk; they would not reach Montego Bay before eleven o’clock, if that place were their destination.
“It will be late when they get to the town,” continued Rider; “and that virtuous and somnolent place retires early. Now, what sort of business can be taking Mrs. Palmer to Montego Bay tonight?”
“You are very curious,” observed Robert with a short laugh, but he too was conscious of a great curiosity.
“I am curious,” confessed Mr. Rider. “I have already said so. Mrs. Palmer’s doings have exercised a good deal of fascination over me ever since I came to this part of the island. Who is she? What is she? She has had three husbands and—well, it is a fact that she has had three husbands and that all three of them have died. She is a determined woman; she can bend people to her will; she is feared; she can call spirits from the vasty deep—or things that look like spirits. And last night she threatened a young coloured woman with condign punishment, and nearly inflicted that punishment herself. Now she goes riding out at night, with but one boy attending her, and that is hardly what any other white woman in Jamaica would do. She is a mystery. I can’t say that I like mysteries unless I can solve them.”
“She can be very friendly when she wants,” broke in Burbridge haltingly. “And she is our employer, after all.”
“I am here for just so long as it will take Ashman to get someone else to fill my place,” said Rider derisively. “I am merely a convenience and therefore not affected by that strong spirit of loyalty (which seems to me indistinguishable from self-interest) that the ordinary book-keeper may be expected to display. I am here today and gone tomorrow, friend Burbridge, and the benefit of such a situation is that I can speak my mind plainly now and then, knowing that once I depart from any estate, I am not likely to be employed on it again. Anyhow, after what happened on Rosehall last night, I don’t wish to remain here long. A few weeks will be sufficient for me; it would be a few days only were not my exchequer in a deplorable condition. I am now going to keep watch and ward over the still-house, which is a den of thieves. I shall endeavour, myself, to keep my hands off the rum.”
He laughed but made no movement to leave. Instead of that he lapsed into thought as though something were on his mind.
“We know what she is, more or less,” said Robert, as if to himself, “but down in the Bay, I remember now, even the rector was puzzled as to who she was and where she originally came from. He said something of the sort to me when he learnt I was coming here to work. The matter seems to have been much discussed, but no one is any the wiser.”
“The matter has been much discussed,” said Rider, waking out of his reverie; “all personal matters are canvassed in this country with a good deal of energy and even more impertinence. Witness our conversation now. But Mrs. Palmer has not been communicative. Still——”
“You know something?” quickly inquired Burbridge.
“Merely rumours, but I fancy they are true. You see, she lived in Kingston before she appeared as a bride in St. James, and Kingston is a town where news spreads far more rapidly than it can down here. I was in Kingston when it was said she was going to marry John Palmer, and as he was known as one of the biggest of the planters, and the owner of the finest residence in rural Jamaica, naturally there was some talk about the woman he had selected as his wife. Some of this talk came my way; I was then curate in the parish church, and the proper thing is that all the gossip should be related to the clergy; apparently it assists them in their spiritual work.”
He paused for a moment, and the other men waited expectantly, not fishing to press him to detail the early history of a woman, but eager to hear it nevertheless.
“I forget now what her maiden name was,” resumed Rider, “but that doesn’t matter. The story was that she came to Jamaica from Haiti.”
“Haiti?” cried Robert; “then she is French?”
“Probably both French and negro,” suggested Burbridge; “I hear there is a lot of mixture of blood in Haiti; she may have some. That might account for her witcheries!”
“There is hardly any need to find the blood of the negro in every villain, male or female,” chuckled Rider, “though that seems to be the fashion in the West Indies. The world is not divided into black devils and white angels; anyway, we three could hardly claim to belong to the angelic confraternity, could we? Besides, there were plenty of white people in Haiti once.”
“Yes, but after the French Revolution the negro leader Dessalines had them all driven out or massacred,” Robert reminded him. “Those who seemed to be white and were allowed to remain really could prove that they had some negro blood in their veins. I was told that in France. Annie may be one of those.”
“You forget, my friend, that Henry Christophe succeeded Dessalines as ruler of the northern part of Haiti, and he allowed white people to settle there; why, his own doctor was a white man. And in the south, Petion, the President, encouraged white people to remain. No; you are quite wrong about Annie Palmer’s origin. Her mother and father were said to be Irish; she herself was born in England or Ireland—both countries have been mentioned—but they took her over while she was yet a little girl. She speaks English perfectly; she would have learnt it from them. She probably speaks French fluently, though no one here has heard her speak in that language. She must have heard and seen some strange things in Haiti; it was there, if anywhere, that she discovered she had powers out of the ordinary. As a growing girl she must have been even more beautiful than she is now, and if her parents were in favour with either Christophe or Petion she would have been regarded as a sort of goddess by the common people. White, lovely, imperious, strong, fearless: don’t you see she was just the sort of girl that a superstitious people would have worshipped?”
“I can understand that,” said Robert; “but what follows from that?”
“This—it is merely a deduction of mine, but I don’t see why it shouldn’t be true—the voodoo priests there, who are versed in all the old African sorcery, and who do understand how to influence the minds of their dupes in all sorts of extraordinary ways, may have seen in this wonderful young girl great occult possibilities, and have taken pleasure in teaching her how to develop those possibilities. She knows how to terrorise the people on her own estates; she has always known it. She can beat down the resistance of white men weaker than herself. I have spoken about the Haitian priests. As a matter of fact, the priestesses of Haiti are quite as powerful, in every way as influential, as their male colleagues. Given a woman of that description thrown in contact with Annie Palmer when she was growing into womanhood, when her mind was maturing, when her curiosity was at its keenest, and anything might happen. She may have had a voodoo priestess for nurse when her parents took her to Haiti; it is quite likely. And Haiti, we all know, is the very stronghold of devil-craft in this part of the world. There the people see visions and the dead are brought out of their graves, or seem to be.”
“It is all guess and hearsay,” murmured Burbridge.
“It is most of it conjecture,” admitted Rider. “I said as much at the beginning; and that is why I have never mentioned the matter before. Still, she did come from Haiti to Jamaica, and she was of English or Irish parentage; so much was believed in Kingston, and that belief would not have got about if it had not its foundations in fact. The rest may not be true, but I think it is. The circumstances suggest that it is.
“But I have been talking too much,” he added abruptly; “I must go on to the still-house now.”
He rose quickly, nodded to the others, then went his way. Robert turned to Burbridge.
“That fellow has been saying some peculiar things,” he remarked. “Tell me, do you believe these stories about Mrs. Palmer’s murdered husbands?”
“Good God, Rutherford!” exclaimed Burbridge, “do you want to get me in trouble?”
“That question alone is an admission,” said Robert grimly. “Rider clearly believes that there is some sinister history connected with this place, and so do you. And I am coming to believe it myself. That is the worst of it. My mind is plagued with doubts and suspicions.”
“But you”—Burbridge hesitated a moment, and then pursued the topic resolutely; he felt he could trust Robert. “You are not like us, as Rider just said; if you don’t like staying here you can leave when you please, unless——”
“Unless—you won’t mind my saying so?—you are in love with Mrs. Palmer. I can understand that you should be. She is a wonderful woman.”
“I will be frank with you, Burbridge; I am and I am not. She is wonderful, as you say, and she has been extraordinarily kind to me. But since you know what happened here last night—of course Psyche told you—I don’t mind admitting that I am startled and disgusted and afraid. I am not afraid for myself, but for Millicent. I don’t know what is going to happen, but I feel that something is. I feel mean when I speak like this; I feel as if I were a traitor. Yet”—he broke off abruptly. “Have you any idea where Millicent may be?” he asked, as if changing the subject.
“There is no particular secret about that. She has an aunt who lives just outside of Montego Bay, on the road to Hanover. I suspect old Takoo took her there last night, but I don’t suppose he will keep her there for long. He will remove her as soon as he can, if he wants her whereabouts to be unknown. Meantime, as she is over twelve miles from here, she should be safe for the present.”
“Safe from whom?”
Burbridge did not answer.
Robert, who had suddenly decided that he was interested in Millicent’s welfare, was frankly and sincerely worried; Burbridge, though personally indifferent, felt that perhaps there might be much to be worried about.
“You or Rider, said a little while ago that Mrs. Palmer was going in the direction of Montego Bay,” insisted Robert. “Do you think——?”
“I would not dare to think anything,” replied Burbridge, lowering his voice. “I don’t want to get mixed up with this business, Rutherford; I have enough of my own difficulties to contend with.”
“But surely she wouldn’t dare!”
“I don’t know what you mean,” said Burbridge guardedly, “but I believe Millicent is perfectly safe where she is, for the present at any rate. She is probably in bed by now, and even in Jamaica a man or woman is secure in bed. There is nothing to worry about.”
“Will you find out for me, tomorrow, without fail, just where she is?” asked Robert. “Can you get the information? I will pay any expenses that may be incurred. Will you?”
“I will try,” promised Burbridge. “I can send a boy I can trust down to the Bay on an errand, and he will go to the place I told you about. If Millicent is there he will find out.”
“Send early,” urged Robert; “I want to know before evening.”
Both men sought their rooms.