The White Witch of Rosehall

Chapter 14: The Old Hige

“You want to go to Montego Bay?” asked Ashman slowly. “It is unusual for book-keepers to get off during the day in crop time, but I suppose you can do what you please.”

Robert frowned slightly; he did not like the suggestion that he was a sort of privileged pet.

“Thanks,” he answered shortly.

It was about one o’clock. Burbridge had been as good as his word; very early that morning he had dispatched a boy to where Takoo’s daughter lived, beyond Montego Bay, and the youth had learnt that Millicent was staying with her aunt. That had been easy enough to find out, for there were many people at the little place to which he had gone with some made-up story to disguise the real purpose of his visit, a story which he found he was not called upon to tell. Something had happened there the night before and the news of it had been bruited about. There were many free negroes in the neighbourhood; these had left all that they had to do and had assembled in Takoo’s yard to offer sympathy. Just what had occurred the boy had not been told.

Of all this Burbridge said nothing to Robert. The young man would find it out for himself, if it concerned him, Burbridge thought.

Robert lost no time in availing himself of Ashman’s permission to have the rest of the day. Ashman himself guessed that it was something connected with Millicent that was taking young Rutherford to the Bay; Ashman knew about the leaving of Rosehall by Annie Palmer the night before, knew how late it was when she returned, and had no doubt at all as to where she had been. It was he indeed who, at her command (which fitted in so well with his own desire), had found out whither old Takoo had taken his granddaughter. That some crisis was impending, if it had not yet actually arrived, he was certain. And he thought that it must result, and that quickly, in Robert Rutherford’s leaving Rosehall Estate.

Robert himself knew that he was going to find Millicent, to warn her. About what and against whom? He faced the question quite frankly; he realised and admitted that he was taking this girl’s part against Annie, realised also that that was what few white men in Jamaica would openly have done. Secretly, yes, many would have done it. But he was not hiding his action, could not in the circumstances do so, as a matter of fact. If the truth must be told, he shrank from the course he was taking, shrank with every nerve of his body, though his determination held. He told himself that there was nothing else to do. He was convinced that in some sort of way he would be responsible if anything happened to Millicent; he felt he was performing an act of duty; anything like passion, like affection, he did not conceive to be a motive at all. Burbridge took a different view. Burbridge’s own opinion, mentioned to no living human being, was that Millicent had won Robert from Annie Palmer, that Annie had realised it, and that these two women, different in colour, in position, in power, in almost everything save a bold and defiant disposition, were embarked on a deadly struggle. Events were moving swiftly to a climax. In a way Burbridge pitied Millicent.

Presently Robert rode out of Rosehall.

At this hour, although it was late December, the sun’s rays were sharp, but the heat was tempered and made easily endurable by the wind which blew in freely from the wide, open sea, a sea that glittered and flashed deep blue and green and purple; whose waves, now agitated by the wind, curled and hurled themselves against rock-bound beach or heavy sand, breaking in a welter of fretted white, hissing as the flashing water retreated, to return again and again in its ceaseless intermittent rush and flow.

To Robert’s left lay the cultivated fields of cane, a wide expanse of light glittering green backed by the low mountains that rose a little farther beyond. There were people on the road; slaves clad in grey or blue osnaburg, drivers conveying wagon-loads of newly made sugar and of rum to points of embarkation, to the little coves and piers from which estate produce was shipped into the sailing boats (the droghers) that would take it on to Kingston or the Bay. The wagons were drawn by long teams of oxen, at whose side walked men armed with great whips, who kept up a continuous shouting which seemed to be understood by the plodding, patient beasts. Robert rode by these, not perceiving that some of them eyed him surlily, never observing that there was in their demeanour a touch of insolent defiance and that but few of them gave him respectful salutation.

Had he been less absorbed in his own thoughts he could hardly have failed to notice this behaviour. Other white men had remarked it for some time now. He himself had heard Burbridge speak of the change which had come over the slaves in the parish, a change which was attributed to the influence of the missionaries, to a rumour that the people had already been granted freedom but that their new rights were being withheld from them. But he had paid little attention to all this; he had been far too much occupied otherwise. And today, of all days, it would have taken some extraordinary action on the part of all these shouting drivers and trudging men to draw his attention specially to their attitude towards him.

He neared the town, came up to the little fort with the cannon pointing towards its seaward approach, saw the red-coated soldiers about the place, and hurried on. He rode into Montego Bay, through its narrow, dusty streets; it was busy enough at this season, for the Christmas holidays were at hand and trade was brisk. Slaves moved about on their masters’ business; by the street corners squatted women, scantily, almost indecently, clad, with bowls and trays heaped with fruit or with sticky cakes made of sugar in front of them. Free negroes went about their pursuits dressed, some of them, in the cast-off clothing once worn by the white people; in this attire figured broad-rimmed top hats and heavy broadcloth overcoats.

It was warm in the town. The buildings were small and dingy. A few vehicles drawn by horses were about, but the men of substance who had come into the town on business were on horseback: owners, overseers and attorneys, and these were not many.

Robert knew the scene well, had observed it often during his week’s stay in Montego Bay. It appeared to him more sordid now than ever before. Once it had possessed the interest of novelty; Jamaica was then new to him, a land of promise, of glorious sunshine, laughing people and beckoning adventure. He had now begun to see that below the surface there was much about this life that was drab, unutterably coarse, grimly sinister. He feared, without quite knowing why, that he would shortly come into intimate contact with some of the tragedy that lay implicit in this half-somnolent, sun-suffused tropical life.

A few persons in the town recognised and saluted him, invited him to stay and have a rum punch with them, for hospitality was ever the order of the day in the Bay. He thanked them and declined, not pausing; his goal was elsewhere and he wished to hasten to it, though not so quickly as to cause comment in a little place where curiosity could be so easily awakened. He pushed onwards, left the town, crossed the bridge that Annie Palmer had passed over the night before; after a while he halted and inquired from some people in the road where the old man Takoo’s daughter lived. The name, Burbridge had told him, would be well known about here. He found that it was.

Those to whom he spoke eyed him curiously, wondering what a young white man could have to do with Takoo and his people. But they directed him willingly enough; he was to look, about half a mile farther on, for a path on his left hand that led inward to “a property”; he could not miss it; but did not massa want someone to take him there? That seemed a good suggestion; he agreed to hire a guide. But when he came to the place that he was seeking he paid and dismissed his guide. He wanted no garrulous witnesses to spy upon and talk about him.

In a few seconds he was before the house.

At once it struck him that something unusual was afoot. The space in front of the little dwelling was crowded with people, all of whom looked at him in surprise and with keen, questioning, inquisitive glances. At the threshold of one door of the house a thick smoke was slowly ascending from a pan filled with what looked like herbs and bits of refuse. The stench given off was overpowering and bitter; it was like incense burnt in honour or propitiation of evil powers. Standing over it was the old man who had rescued Millicent from Annie Palmer two nights before. His face was set and brooding. Upon it was stamped terror and a mighty, smouldering anger.

Robert felt embarrassed. He had not expected so many witnesses of his advent. And now that he was there he did not quite know what to say. How to explain why he had come? How to ask for the girl in the presence of all these people?

Takoo saw him, looked at him intently, and seemed to guess why he was there. He waved his arm, and the little crowd drew back. He came up to where Robert sat on his horse; “You heard already, Squire?” he asked.

“No; I have heard nothing; what is it?” demanded Robert.

“Come inside,” said Takoo laconically.

Robert leaped off his horse and followed the old man. In the room into which he was led, crouched in a chair by the side of a bed, was Millicent. Her head was hidden between her hands, a sound of moaning came from her lips, her body swayed to and fro, the movement of one in mental or physical anguish.

Her grandfather touched her on the shoulder. “Look up,” he commanded.

She obeyed mechanically. She saw the young man’s face bending down with a look of consternation, of questioning, of horror, upon it. Her own face was of the colour of ashes, and drawn; she seemed bloodless, and a fear that almost amounted to madness glared out of her eyes.

She uttered a cry and threw out her arms, clinging to Robert’s knees. “Oh, Squire, Squire,” she cried, “help me, save me, for God’s sake save me! Do what you can for me. I am dying.”

“Good God, Millicent!” he cried, “what is the matter? Why are you like this?”

“What is the matter?” he demanded fiercely, turning to the old man. “Can’t you speak?”

“Tell him,” said Takoo to the girl, with a sort of grim quietness.

“Last night, it happened last night,” she whispered.

“Yes? What happened?”

“I was sleeping. I don’t know what time it was. But I wake up all of a sudden, for I knew there was something in de room with me; I heard it.

“It was dark, for everywhere was shut up, the window as well as the door. But I heard it. It moved near to me, and then I saw it.” She paused and shuddered convulsively.

“You saw it? But it was dark, Millie,” he reminded her gently, wondering what was the story she had to tell him.

“It was dark but I saw it. It was a woman, Squire; I know that, though the face was all like a white cloud. Her hands was stretched out towards me, and they catch and hold me—caught my throat. I couldn’t scream. I wanted to scream an’ I couldn’t. And I wanted to struggle an’ fight, but I couldn’t. It was just as if somebody take me strength away. And the woman-thing put her face nearer to me, but not into my face. She bite me here”—Millicent touched a spot between her breasts—”a sharp, cruel bite—cruel. And she suck me; I don’t know how long. Then I scream out, an’ she disappear, an’ my aunt and her daughter came in. An’ we know what it was; it was an Old Hige, an’ now nothing can save me. I am dying, O my God! I am dying. An’ I am only twenty, Squire, an’ I love you so much.”

Robert took both her hands firmly in his. He felt relieved now that he had heard her story.

“Listen, Millicent,” he said quietly. “I know what is the matter with you. You had a bad nightmare last night; that is all. You were worried and overwrought; you understand? You were worried over what had happened the night before and it preyed upon your mind. So you dreamed this thing, and you have allowed it to terrorise you. If you did not believe in all these foolish superstitions you would have laughed at your dream when you got awake. You will laugh now; there is nothing in it.”

She sobbed quietly, the sobs of despair. Robert looked at the old man by his side. There was no acceptance in Takoo’s face of what seemed the right and rational explanation of what had occurred. It came to Robert Rutherford that he was face to face with a terrible problem, an unshakeable conviction in these people’s minds.

He drew Millicent gently into a standing posture.

“Now I want you to be sensible,” he said patiently. “Don’t you see that you have had a horrible dream and nothing more? How could a woman, an Old Hige as you call her, come into your room when the door and window were closed? Did you find them open when you got awake? Did anyone?”

The girl shook her head, still sobbing.

“Very well, then, no one could have come in; that’s quite evident. Can’t you see that you have only been imagining that something evil has happened to you?”

“Look here,” whispered Millicent; “tell me yourself what you see.”

She opened her bodice. Two firm, rounded breasts were displayed. In the little hollow flanked by the soft promontories was a blistered space, about the size of a shilling. Purple against the golden brown of the glossy skin it stood out; and the skin was almost broken. It looked as though it had been caused by a blow which, a trifle harder, would have drawn blood.

Robert gazed at the mark with astonishment in his eyes, with a sense of sickness in his stomach. But he rallied his common sense. This might have been caused by some perfectly simple and natural means—must have been. Its discovery by Millicent, coupled with her nightmare, had made her give to it a significance that had no basis in fact.

“Millicent, boils and blisters are very common,” he urged. “This is only one of them. You have a dream and a blister, and you put the two together and make a fuss about it. Nonsense! I will go to the Bay for a doctor for you and he will have you right in half an hour. But if you go on moping and mourning as you have been doing, you will certainly make yourself seriously ill. Have you sent for a doctor?” he asked Takoo.

“A white doctor can’t do anything for her, massa,” replied the old man heavily. “What she say is true. Old Hige come here last night an’ suck her blood. We may save her, but it won’t be by doctor’s medicine.”

Millicent had sunk into her seat again. Once more her arms were clinging about Robert’s knees. It was as if she felt that in him was some support, some help. She clung to him as to a last pillar of refuge.

He placed a hand upon her bowed head. An awful fear possessed him. He remembered that ride of Annie Palmer’s out of Rosehall last night, and the strange creature which, on the night before that, even white men had seen. This girl’s sickness and despair might well be some devil’s work.

“What is this Old Hige she is talking about?” he asked Takoo. “Is it a sort of ghost, a fiend, some wretched African belief? Why do you people believe such horrible things?” A gust of anger (born of fear and a sense of helplessness) swept through him. “Why the hell do you all think such frightful, beastly things? You all live in hell with your degraded imaginations; there is nothing clean and healthy about your minds. Your souls are blacker than ever your skins could be. Don’t you see, you old fool, that you are torturing your granddaughter by encouraging her to believe the rank folly that seems like meat and drink to you? By God, if I had the power I would flog half to death any man that talked nonsense about Old Higes and the rest in the presence of children! Look before you now and see what your teaching has done!”

“If anybody else was to call me old fool, massa,” said Takoo quietly, “he would see before long whether him or me was the fool. But I understand you. I know how you feel, young massa, an’ I am grateful to you for it. You are a good man. I won’t forget you.”

“I don’t care a damn whether you forget me or not! What are you going to do to rid your granddaughter of her foolish fear? What can I do? Can’t you suggest something?”

“I doing all I can just now,” said Takoo, “an’ I will do the utmost if Mrs. Palmer drive me to it.”

“It is she, I know it is she!” broke in Millicent wildly. “I didn’t see her face when she or her spirit come into the room, but I feel it was she. She was here, sucking all me blood; she is an Old Hige, a witch, a devil. She want to kill me because she want you for her own self.”

“What is this Old Hige?” again asked Robert, with a note of resignation in his voice. There seemed to be no use arguing against so profound a belief.

Takoo told him in a few words, speaking as one who had no doubts whatever, but rather intimate knowledge and personal experience. An Old Hige was a woman with the power to divest herself of her skin, and to render herself invisible. She sought out people whose blood she desired, babies as a rule, and sucked them to death. A grown person could not so easily and quickly be deprived of his or her blood; but to show that Millicent’s death, a death by occult means, had been determined upon, Takoo added, an obeah spell, a curse, had also been put upon her the night before. The proof of it was there.

He went outside and came back with a child’s skull and a bit of white cardboard. There was no other human being in those premises (except Robert) who would have dared to handle those objects.

Takoo pointed to the bit of cardboard. Sketched upon its white surface was a coffin, and in the coffin lay a shrouded girl. The face was unmistakable. It was Millicent’s.

Takoo spoke slowly and with emphasis. “Mrs. Palmer ride out of Rosehall last night. Where to? She came here. When I heard it today—for I know everything dat take place in Rosehall an’ Palmyra—I came straight for dis place; I know something bad had happened. The first thing I saw, massa, was this skull and piece of board, and though I was afraid—for I know more than you about dese things—I take them down. Then Millicent tell me what she see and feel last night. And I know the worst.”

“But you can’t believe——”

Takoo’s voice rose abruptly passionately; his self-control, never very strong at any time, had given way. “I believe, I know that that dam’ white woman, that witch, that Old Hige was here last night, an’ that she was in dis room sucking me gran’-child blood! She was here; she come to commit murder—it is not the first time she done that. But, so help me God, it is going to be the last. If I can’t save Millie’s life, I will revenge her!”

But for his overwhelming, overpowering anger, Takoo would not have ventured to speak like this. He was uttering terrible threats against a white woman who, however much she might be shunned by her own class, could claim the protection of the law against a well-known obeahman, one who was watched by the authorities, who had long wanted to get enough evidence against him to send him to prison or to the gallows. But now he was crazed with grief, maddened by wrath also, and was reckless. Perhaps, too, he knew well the young man would not breathe to anyone else a word that he said. Black and white, old and young, master and ex-slave, they had this one enduring, mighty bond in common: sympathy for the suffering girl before them, heart-sorrow for her predicament.

Others had heard Takoo’s vehement words. The people outside had gradually been drawing nearer to the house while the colloquy inside proceeded. Their exclamations now came sharply to the ear. Wails and lamentations, and curses. Some of the women were on the verge of hysteria, some of them already raved as though demented.

Robert saw that this atmosphere, super-charged with superstition and excitement as it was, must do Millicent an immense amount of harm. The air of the room in which she sat, too, was close, and fetid with the odour of burning bush and sweat-saturated garments. It sickened him.

“Won’t you send some of those people outside away?” he suggested to Takoo. “I want to take Millicent into the open air for a while. It will do her good.”

Takoo bowed his head and went outside; he returned in a few moments to say that the visitors had gone, though as a matter of fact they had only withdrawn out of the yard into the road, standing ready to return as soon as they might.

Only two women remained; Millicent’s aunt and her daughter.

“Can’t you walk, Millie?” Robert’s question really affirmed that she could if she wanted to.

She rose with his help, staggering a little; it was clear she believed that she could move only with great difficulty. Her fixed belief that her blood had been sucked and she was doomed had sapped her will, and her body reacted sympathetically to her extraordinary obsession.

Robert led her outside, impatiently kicking out of his path the pan of smoking bush. He guessed its purpose. It was all so puerile, almost obscene, he swiftly thought, and yet he was far from disbelieving that there might be something in these strange, degrading superstitions. Annie Palmer had openly proclaimed her knowledge of the existence of wicked spirits, of their prowling presence on the earth. And these people would say that she ought to know, since she had traffic with them. Besides, did he himself utterly disbelieve in them? In his heart of hearts he knew that he did not.

He motioned to one of the two women, Millicent’s relatives, to bring a chair; this he placed under a spreading mango tree, the thick foliage of which afforded a welcome shade. He asked for another chair, had it put close to the first one, seated Millicent and then sat down himself. Here in the sunlight he noticed, startled, that her pallor was more deathlike than it had appeared in the darkened room. It was just as though she had indeed been deprived of blood, as if her veins had been drained. And there were dark circles round her eyes.

She looked very pathetic, this girl, who, a couple of days before, had been so full of vitality, so confident in her strength, so upright and virile in her bearing. A poignant pang of pity shot through him; he felt stirred by something of the same rage that had possessed the old African and had caused him to utter wild and dangerous words. It came to him that something must be done, and quickly, to rid this girl of her conviction of approaching death; otherwise she might die of sheer terror. He had heard of something of the sort happening in other countries. Fear could kill.

“Millicent,” he said, holding her right hand in his and fixing his regard firmly on hers, “I am going to help you. Do you understand me? It does not matter what has afflicted you: I am going to help you to get rid of it.”

“How?” she asked, while tears of gratitude filled her eyes.

“Well, in the first place, you were christened, weren’t you? And you are a Christian?”

She nodded her head, murmuring “yes.”

“That being so, you must believe that God can aid you, can restore you to health, that He is more powerful than all the Higes or fiends in the world, don’t you?”

Again she said yes, but there seemed no great force of conviction behind her agreement.

“Well, then, I am going to ask the rector of this parish, today, to pray for you, and”—in his groping for assistance he remembered Rider, the broken clergyman who was, nevertheless, as he understood it, still a clergyman, and a man of real kindness of heart, despite his fallen estate—”and I am going also to ask another parson to pray for you; a man who knows Mrs. Palmer, and is not afraid of her. And I am going to send you a doctor. If you believe in God you cannot believe that the Devil is stronger than God, can you? And if you make up your mind to get well, you will. You see it all, don’t you?”

Even while he spoke it seemed to him queer, and even mawkish, that he should be talking of religion, and prayer, and parsons, he who had never done anything of the sort before, and who would have shuddered to think of himself as doing it. But a human life, at least a human being’s reason, might be at stake. And if it were Annie who had, somehow, brought the girl to this pass, all the power of religion as well as of human agencies might be needed to save Millicent.

“You will promise me to do your best to get well?” he asked her.

“Yes, I promise; I will try; but,” she wailed, “don’t you know dat she will harm you too if she know you come to see me and try to help me? She hate me, and she going to hate you too. She’s like that.”

“I don’t care a fig for her hate. I will face her or anyone else. I want and am determined to help you, Millie; you may depend on that.”

A glad look lit up Millicent’s dejected countenance, then it faded away and her head dropped once more. She was weeping again. Watching her, Robert had himself to struggle to keep tears from his eyes.

“Squire,” she said softly, “I promise you I will try, but I don’t think you save me. I know how I feel last night, an’ how I feel now.” She seized his hand with sudden force. “Oh, my God,” she cried, “I wonder if I will ever see you again.”

He could stand this no longer. He rose abruptly, and beckoned to Takoo, telling him briefly what he intended to do in the matter of the doctor. “You must let me know how she gets on,” he said, “and if you want money you can have all that is necessary. You will keep her here?”

No, she was going to be removed that day. But Takoo promised that he would let the young squire know where she was later on. He had not yet made up his mind where he would take her to; he had to be very secretive. He did not dare let her future whereabouts be known.

“Not that de Old Hige will come again like she did last night,” he said, “for we will be watching; but she might do something else.”

“I wonder how much of this is sense and how much nonsense,” said Robert sadly.

“Mr. Ashman an’ Mr. Rider saw the Horse two nights ago,” said Takoo slowly; “saw it plain. I saw it before Mrs. Palmer last husband die. Young massa, there is plenty of things you don’t know, that is why you disbelieve. You can send de doctor, but not later than seven o’clock. After that him won’t find any of us here.”

“I will see you again shortly, Millie,” said Robert; “meantime, believe you are going to get well.”

He took her hand in his. “Promise me that you will try,” he said.

She was loath to let go his hand. “I don’t believe I will ever see you again,” she wailed, and as he moved away her heavy, despairing sobs seemed like blows falling upon his heart.



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