The White Witch of Rosehall
Meanwhile, Annie and her attendant were pushing on towards Montego Bay.
High above moved the moon, which now threw into soft relief the hills on the one hand, the gently moving waters on the other. The sky was pale blue, stars thickly studded the luminous vault, and moon and stars gave forth an illumination which, in that clear cold air of the night made possible the perception of objects far away. A murmur came in from the sea and was answered by the whispering breezes from the mountains, and tiny waves were silver where they touched the shore.
Now and then the coastline was obscured by thick clumps of mangrove and by patches of seagrape. The mangrove marked the site of swamps; it grew to a height of several feet, with fleshy, unhealthy-looking leaves of bottle-green. Its roots, gnarled, twisted, lengthy, black, protruded for a foot and more above the oozy soil from which rose a rank unpleasant odour, and looked like thousands of snakes contorting themselves under the shadow of the trees and in the slime. There was something sinister about these mangrove swamps; and there indeed proliferated the dangerous mosquito which could convey to the human body the germs of the dreaded blackwater fever, from which recovery was almost hopeless. But that was not known in those days. If men shunned the mangrove it was mainly because of its appearance and of the difficulty of making way among those protuberant, snaky roots which at any moment might trip up the most careful pedestrian and cause him to plunge headlong into fetid mud.
The road to Montego Bay made rough and tortuous riding. It was full of ruts, and the surface of some of the slabs of stone with which it was strewn was slippery. Along the roadside and among the swamps swarmed myriads of crabs reddish-black in hue, swift on their pointed legs, with claws uplifted in self-defence or menace. They were of small size, but so numerous that they created a distinct sound as they scuttled to hiding or dashed from one spot to another as the riders went by. Annie knew it was quite possible that at any moment she might come upon a crocodile which, crawling out of a swamp that edged the road, might stretch itself across the way like a log of wood; but she knew also that the creature would be frightened by the approach of the horses and would hurry away rather than attack. In this part of the country, too, they were not plentiful. Yet she kept an eye on the path before her, since there was no reason why any unnecessary risk should be run, for hers was no crocodile hunt.
When she came to the entrance of the town itself she rode as quietly as possible, giving a signal to her attendant to go slowly. She did not wish to be perceived. She hoped that, even should there be anyone about at that hour, she should escape recognition; nevertheless she knew that the mere presence of a white woman riding through Montego Bay at that hour of the night would awaken considerable curiosity. It would be commented upon the following morning; conjectures would be afloat. It might of course be thought that some belated woman had been pressing on to her home, perhaps the wife of one of the smaller planters; certainly no lady of position. That would render her safe from detection, but she preferred that no living soul should have a glimpse of her going or coming, and on the whole she trusted that no one would.
She trusted rightly. The little town, built upon a sloping, crescent-shaped sweep of land backed by low hills to south and east, lay in obscurity. There was no lighting save that from the moon and stars, and the moon was now steadily dropping towards the west, and the buildings in the town threw parts of the streets in shadow. All was silent, save for the staccato barking of starveling dogs that wandered about the thoroughfares hunting for food among the garbage and offal that stood exposed in heaps and in open boxes in front of shops and dwellings. Smells arose, assailing the nostrils; the dust lay thick upon the ground, but served to deaden the thud of the horses’ hooves. Not a human being was abroad.
On the eminences commanding the town and overlooking the wide bay from which the town derived its name stood the residences of the larger merchants and the urban homes of a few of the neighbouring planters. These too were shrouded in darkness, but Annie gave them not so much as a glance. She directed her horse westward, passing entirely through Montego Bay; presently she had left the town behind her and was riding along a road which cut a sugar estate in two, an estate which began almost on the border of Montego Bay. Here she quickened her pace. Stray cattle might be encountered, but human beings hardly; besides, they would not seek to come near to her or to speculate about her presence there, as would the townspeople. Soon she was passing through a sombre avenue formed by overhanging trees, great trees that grew to a lofty height, with huge branches covered thickly with the heavy foliage of the tropics. Here and there the moonlight streaked through, but thin and wan and ghostly. Fireflies danced among the underbrush: the darkness was irradiated by the swift flashing of thousands of phosphorescent green-gold points of light at one moment, to be rendered denser when, as at a signal, every one faded out as though myriads of tiny lamps had been extinguished by the turning of a switch. Then the trees disappeared and Annie crossed a bridge under which rolled a river, dark-gleaming, and about a mile farther on she pulled up her horse and reconnoitred.
A little while before she had been the subject of discussion on her own estate, and Rider had suggested to his friends her probable origin. By a coincidence her thoughts at this moment ran on Haiti, as she reflected upon what she was about to do. Rider, with the intuition of an educated man who, before his downfall, had studied the history and condition of all the West Indian countries, had almost hit upon the leading circumstances of Annie Palmer’s youth. Annie often thought of her youth in the nearby island. Her father had been a merchant there, attracted by the chance of making money under a black king who did not pursue the policy of his predecessor and forbid white people to enter that part of the country over which he ruled. She had known King Henry Christophe, a tyrant, a brute often, but yet a man of outstanding personality, who forced his subjects to work and maintained order with an iron hand. One class, however, though he had made war on them at first, he had never been able to suppress. The priests and priestesses of the Voodoo defied him in act if not by word, and in lonely valleys and in the depths of dark forests they sacrificed to the great green serpent which symbolised their chief deity, and the sacrifices were sometimes human. She had known a high priestess of this cult. The woman had been no nurse of hers, as Rider had suggested; she had been a woman of position and property in Cape Haitian, a woman who had marched with the armies of Dessalines and Christophe when these set out to free Haiti from the French domination. This woman had been in the habit of bringing the pretty little child some presents and once she had given Annie a beautiful diamond necklace of great value. She seemed to care for the girl; she was childless, and her husband was dead. Annie’s parents thought it more advantageous than otherwise that a woman, whose husband had actually been a baron of King Christophe’s black Court, should be kindly disposed towards Annie, and consequently towards them. Her friendship was well worth having. Its benefits were seen in the number of the Haitians who patronised the Irish merchant—for he was Irish. Her enmity might have been a thing unpleasant to contend with.
This woman, whose title in northern Haiti was that of baroness, gradually won an ascendancy over Annie. In her way she loved the white girl, though, on principle, she hated the white race, whom she regarded as the natural oppressors of her people. Annie’s mind dwelt on her now, even as she scanned the road and the landmarks to right and left. She remembered how the Baroness—she had taken the title seriously when she lived in Haiti—had talked to her about the spirits that wandered about the earth and the air, the spirits who inhabited and animated everything, and how human beings, by determination and practice, and especially by belief and faith, could acquire power over these spirits. The girl had been fascinated. In an atmosphere charged, so to speak, with the supernatural, where white as well as black believed in the occult, in the mysterious, in the traffic of earthly beings with those who were disembodied or of unearthly origin; in a strange, dark land where, among the mountains, in the dead of night, and in spite of the king’s decrees, the eerie sound of the voodoo drum could be heard stabbing through the silence and the darkness, it was not surprising that Annie should believe what she was told, especially as the Baroness showed her how the common people worshipped those who called them to the midnight orgies or blasted the disobedient into insanity or death.
Then the Baroness told her that she too had the capacity to do wonderful things, and taught her the secrets of the Voodoo. And Annie came to believe that she possessed the power of a god.
What would have happened to her eventually had she remained in Haiti she could never know. An epidemic of yellow fever had swept both her parents away within a few days. A month after, the old Baroness was also dead. A few white men in Cape Haitian saw that Haiti could be no place for a young unmarried white woman to live in; they suggested Jamaica to her. She had some means, and she was tired of dull and barbarous Cape Haitian. She came to Jamaica, met John Palmer shortly after, but soon found her new home more tedious and dull than ever the old one had been. Had the Baroness been living Annie might have returned to Haiti. The old woman had hinted to her that there was no height to which, in that country, she might not aspire, no power she might not attain. What would have been to others a fatal disability, her blood, her whiteness, would have aided her, with the papalois and mamalois, the priests and priestesses of Haiti, on her side; and with her superior intellect, her strength of will, her fearlessness, her beauty, she would have dominated them. But the Baroness was dead, the sturdy, coal-black female fanatic, and sometimes (it must be added) female fiend, was gone for ever. So Haiti was out of the question, and Annie had no desire to go to England, where her mother was born, or to Ireland, from whence her father came.
She always felt that in England she would count for but little; there would be no supremacy for her there. In Jamaica there was. Here she could live, almost unfettered, the life she loved, a life of domination and of sensuality. Here she could put to the proof the powers she possessed and of which she was inordinately proud. Tonight she was again about to put them to the proof. These people were quite as fearful, as superstitious, as those of the country of her girlhood. And one of them had dared to defy her. A few days would show everyone who knew of that defiance how temerarious and hopeless it was for any woman to pit herself against Annie Palmer of Rosehall.
She had walked her horse slowly forward while giving free rein to her reminiscences and her thoughts; now, about a quarter of a mile away from the spot where she had halted, she checked her horse again. She was satisfied that she had arrived at her destination. She dismounted and flung her reins to the boy. From him she took a parcel that he had been carrying carefully; then she bade him wait for her and went on her way alone on foot. She had not far to go. Soon she came to a path that led into some small property, a path for which she had looked closely as she walked along.
This narrow way, which ran between rows of heavy-foliaged trees, was as black as a tunnel cut through the bowels of a mountain. Here no friendly fireflies danced with cheerful illumination, here no gleam from the moon could penetrate. All was sombre and still, with a chilling silence. But Annie did not hesitate.
She went slowly, carefully; in that dense darkness sight was of little assistance to her; she had almost to feel her way. But she had learnt the whereabouts of this place meticulously; her information had been precise. She did not think she had failed to find it.
There might be dogs, but she was prepared for them. Not only was she armed with a heavy riding whip, but in the parcel which she carried were bits of meat. No poorly fed mongrel of the countryside would resist such a feast; besides, a peasant’s dog would hardly bark at a white man or woman. Nothing disturbed her progress, however; nothing broke the silence of the night. She seemed the only living creature moving about at that moment.
Soon she sensed rather than saw a low three-roomed cottage standing to one side of a little clearing. That was what she sought.
She stole up to the very door of the little house and paused. There was still no sound, no stir, though she knew that behind that door human beings were sleeping.
From the parcel in her hand she now drew forth a queer round object; it was a child’s skull smeared with blood. To it was attached, by a piece of wire, a bit of white cardboard. She herself was completely merged in the environing darkness, but her movements were as noiseless as those of a cat. She ran her hands over the lintels of the door and window; her fingers came in contact with a nail; it was something of the sort she had been feeling for. The first part of her task, she knew, would now be easy.
By the same bit of wire with which the little oblong cardboard was attached to the skull, she hung the gruesome object on to the nail: it would be the first thing to strike the eye of anyone emerging from the house in the morning, or approaching it. Then she did a strange thing. Concentrating her gaze upon the door, as though she would pierce with her vision through the solid wood, she stood there tense and erect. Her hands were clenched, her eyes fixed and glaring, as they had been on the night before when that weird, awful, glowing creature had appeared before the horror-struck regard of Ashman and the others at Rosehall. Her rigidity was that of a cataleptic.
One minute, two, three minutes passed, and Annie did not stir.
Of a sudden there came a cry from within the little dwelling, a cry of agony and terror and despair.
Again and again it rose; someone was crying out in mortal fear, in heart-stricken panic.
Annie Palmer heard, and slowly relaxed. She reeled slightly. But a smile of triumph wreathed her lips as she caught the sounds and exclamations of confusion that now broke out in the house; sharp calls and questions succeeding to those terrifying screams that had issued from the lips of a frightened, startled woman within. She stepped back silently, but more quickly than she had entered; she made her way back, sometimes stumbling, sometimes almost running, to where her patient slave stood with the horse; she mounted, struck her steed a sharp blow and went as quickly as she dared along the road, over the bridge, through the town and back to Rosehall. It was in the early hours of the morning that she reached the Great House, and there she repeated her previous instructions to the boy.
“Remember, you are not to say a word about where we went last night; I went for a ride and you accompanied me. Do you hear?”
“Yes, missis,” he agreed abjectly.
“If you disobey—well, you know what to expect!”
He knew. As a matter of fact he had seen nothing that she had done. But that she had been to the place where old Takoo’s daughter lived he was well aware, and when a few minutes later an elderly slave woman, who acted as a kind of housekeeper for Mrs. Palmer, seized hold of his arm as he was going to bed and asked him whisperingly about his nocturnal mission he told her what he knew. For he was afraid of this woman, who was hand in glove with Takoo, with Takoo who was dreaded by every man and woman on Palmyra and Rosehall. As dreaded as Mrs. Palmer, and even more in a peculiar sort of way. For the slaves believed that Takoo could read their minds; he was African, a witch-doctor, and it was madness to try to deceive him. They had often deceived Mrs. Palmer, and though she was dangerous she was less so, to them, than the gaunt negro of whom even some white men stood in awe.
Mrs. Palmer might whip them cruelly. Takoo could send ghosts to haunt them, could plague them with remorseless evil spirits. Let them gravely offend him and they might end their lives in agony and pass to greater agony in another world.