The White Witch of Rosehall
Robert got back to Rosehall in time to meet the other two book-keepers together; they had finished dinner, not having waited for him. His meal was being kept warm by Psyche, who had been relieved from all extraneous duties to act as cook for the three men. But he refused to have anything to eat just then, he was far too anxious to face food: later on, he said, he would eat something.
Burbridge would be off presently to his night-work, but there was still some time for talk; and Robert wanted to consult with these two, partly because he wished their opinion and advice, partly because he felt the need of someone to whom he could speak openly as to a friend.
He told them where he had been that afternoon, though both of them already knew, and just what he had seen and heard.
“It is inexplicable to me,” he said, “how these people can believe all these weird, horrible things, and yet I saw the mark on Millicent’s bosom myself, and there can be no doubt that she believes what she says.”
There was silence for a couple of minutes when he ceased. Burbridge broke it.
“Who is to say that the girl isn’t right, Rutherford? Queer things happen everywhere. You don’t know that there are not evil spirits plaguing men and women; the Bible tells us that there are. I never laugh at what these people say. Perhaps they know more about certain things than we do.”
“Then you actually believe that this girl is being haunted, haunted to death?” asked Robert, “and that Annie Palmer is the prime cause of it?”
“I don’t know who is the cause of it,” said Burbridge dourly; “we mustn’t be too free with names. But I have seen people on the estates die from ghost-haunting, and I have seen some go mad. It isn’t anything to scoff at, I can tell you.”
“What is to be done?” Robert put the question tensely.
“Whatever is to be done will be done by old Takoo; you may rest assured of that. He told you, didn’t he, that your doctor could do no good? But he is a sort of doctor himself, where these things are concerned. Perhaps he himself has put ghosts—death—on people before now, so he knows how to handle such a situation. Maybe this is the retribution that has come upon him. For what he has done his beloved granddaughter suffers today. He’ll feel that.”
“Then all I have to say is that that is damned injustice!” broke out Robert harshly. “But you think that Takoo may cure Millicent?”
“He may be able to; he’ll have a try at it, anyhow. I wouldn’t worry much about it—yet,” added Burbridge kindly, for he saw that the young man was distressed. “After all, Millie wasn’t anything to you; she hadn’t really become your “housekeeper,” had she?”
Robert gave no answer, Burbridge continued: “Whatever there is to be done for her, Takoo will do it; you may rest assured of that. And it won’t suit you, Rutherford, to mix yourself up too much with this business.”
“And yet perhaps,” said Rider, speaking for the first time, “unless Rutherford does interest himself in it the girl will die.”
“What do you mean?” asked both the other men at once.
“You both believe that Mrs. Palmer has had something to do with Millicent’s sickness,” Rider went on, but with lowered voice. “You don’t know how she has acted, but you look upon her as the real cause of this trouble, and I have no doubt you are right. Well, I am wondering whether Takoo, however powerful an obeahman he may be, can succeed if he acts alone against Mrs. Palmer’s will and influence; but if we could bring her in as a sort of kindly or forgiving agency, something might be done. Takoo might ask her for help, but is she likely to heed him? Rutherford might ask her; we all know that she—that she has a liking for him. She may do something for him—at a price. That is just possible. She might be content if, say, the girl went to the other end of the island, though she may think Jamaica too small for herself and a coloured, free young lady who dared to defy her and to charge her with murder. She is terribly vain; her vanity has been outraged by Millicent’s presumption, and forgiveness comes hard to a woman like Mrs. Palmer; indeed, she doesn’t forgive, though she may not insist upon revenge. But her intervention may be Millicent’s only hope. Do you think it worth your while to appeal for it, Rutherford? You couldn’t harm the girl any more than she is harmed already, anyway; for if she believes she is going to die, you may take it from me that she will die.”
Robert and Burbridge shuddered. Rider, sot though he was, was sober enough now, and he was speaking with a quiet certitude that carried terrible conviction to the minds of his two companions. And no one could doubt that he was sympathetic.
“Then you are satisfied that Millicent is really haunted?” asked Robert. “You believe what these people on the estates believe? Is it all true, then?”
“I have told you what I saw the other night with my own eyes, haven’t I?”
“Yes; you were very clear about that, though——”
“No; I was quite sober; I haven’t touched a drink for nearly a month. It was not, either, a case of my imagination being affected by the imagination of the negroes. Remember, Ashman indicated that he saw it also, and Mrs. Palmer spoke as if it were a fact. You have, therefore, the testimony of three white people, all of them presumably sober. And now you bring us this tale of an Old Hige, which is only the Vampire of other countries, Rutherford, the Vampire which is human and which lives on blood.”
He stopped as though to think; his auditors waiting breathlessly on him, for he seemed to have some explanation of this miserable mystery to suggest.
“We may rest assured that, whatever else she did last night, Annie Palmer did not take off her skin and pass through wood in order to get at this girl. That sort of belief is sheer nonsense. Yet Millicent saw, or felt something—a presence—in her room with her, and there is a peculiar, suggestive bruise on her chest. And there is the child’s skull that was hung up outside of her room, which must have been put where it was found, and also a sketch of her lying in her coffin. The skull and the sketch are pure obeah—witchcraft mummery; they are meant to terrify, to complete the work of the so-called Old Hige. They are Millicent’s signed death warrant so to speak. A real Vampire, a real Old Hige, supposing that such a thing existed, would not need to employ them. The blood-sucking would be enough.”
“The people about here,” interrupted Burbridge, “believe that you can keep an Old Hige away if you know she is likely to come at you. Takoo is doing that now.”
“Yes; but they didn’t know last night that our lady of the Great House would be on the prowl; and if she were powerful enough to pass through locked doors and fastened windows she would have been sufficiently powerful to kill the girl outright. She must have known that she was not going to reach Millicent with her hands and teeth when she took care to prepare the skull and sketch. Besides, would she have run the risk of being found in the room? Even as it is, if it can be proved that it was she who put that skull and sketch where they were found, she could be indicted for practising obeah. But she is not a fool. She knows that while a white woman may be suspected of murder, no jury would readily believe that she practised obeah. That would be thought highly unlikely.”
“Then,” said Robert bluntly, “you conclude that she sent a ghost into the room to Millicent; some damned wretched creature from the Pit like the one you yourself saw here the other night? She is a witch, then, as well as a murderess—for I have never felt sure she wasn’t a murderess ever since I heard the story about her, although I have not wanted to give it any credence. Indeed, I should still think it a lie but for this last thing that is happening.”
“Yes,” said Rider slowly, “I believe that she sent something to prey upon Millicent’s mind; but what was it? I too saw something three nights ago. But what was it?”
“The Three-footed Horse, the Horse from Hell,” said Burbridge bluntly.
“That’s what it looked like. Isn’t that what Mrs. Palmer intended that it should look like?”
“You mean——?” Robert paused, glimpsing a little what Rider had in his mind, but not quite able to express it.
“You heard of Mesmer when in England, or when on the Continent, Rutherford?”
“Yes, a little; not much. I wasn’t interested.”
“Mesmer claimed extraordinary powers and did some extraordinary things in France in his time—before and after the Revolution. He could certainly influence the minds of people: they say he “mesmerised” them. I have heard of the same kind of thing being done in India, where the workers of magic cause you to see all sorts of queer and impossible phenomena. If they can do that, why should not other people—a very few perhaps, but still some—be able to do it also? The power may be purely mental, not supernatural at all.”
“I see,” breathed Robert, but Burbridge looked puzzled. The talk was a little above him.
“I have been a clergyman, even if a damned poor one,” Rider went on, with a rueful smile, “and I was taught to believe that there is a Devil and his angels whose work is to torture mankind and cause them to lose their souls. And the Witch of Endor, you remember, brought the Prophet Samuel up out of his grave. There is Scriptural warrant for believing in witches and in human ability to use and control the spirits. There are plenty of people in England today who believe in witches; there are more on the Continent. But I am not naturally superstitious. Annie Palmer may have a power which is of the mind, not of hell.”
“But such power is of hell!” asseverated Robert passionately. “What else is it? For what purpose is it used? Or it may be that she employs her own spirit. Millicent said something about Mrs. Palmer’s spirit, not her body, being in the room with her last night. Surely that suggests hellish power.”
“In a way you are right,” continued Rider quietly, “but what I mean is that perhaps she causes people to see things she herself thinks of; it is a vision of her mind that she projects into space, now in the form of a spectral horse, now in the form of a shadowy vampire. Mark you, I don’t say she doesn’t herself imagine that she calls up these shapes from hell, or from the grave. Quite probably she does. She herself may not be able to explain her own powers, and as she is more likely to pray to the Devil than to God she would believe, and gladly believe, that she has influence over the world of evil. A woman like that would be intensely proud of her power—puffed up—and what better food for vanity than a conviction that even devils obey her? Going, Burbridge?”
“Yes, I have got to be off now. But listen: I can trust you fellows, and I tell you now, quite frankly, that I believe that damned woman up there is in league with hell. She is a witch, and as soon as I can get another job I am out of Rosehall. I have had enough of it!”
He jammed his hat on his head and marched away. Rider looked at him with a smile. “His nerve is going,” he said, “and yet Burbridge would face a dozen riotous slaves without hesitation. He may have to face more than that, too, very shortly. There is going to be trouble on these estates before long, Rutherford; everything points to that.”
“The sooner it comes the better!” cried Robert. “It seems to me that only fire and blood can wipe out some of the iniquity that festers here.”
“Maybe; but I hope I shall not be considered part of that iniquity,” smiled Mr. Rider.
He became grave again instantly.
“You see now, don’t you, why I said that it may be necessary for you to concern yourself further with this strange affair of Millicent’s? If she has been bewitched or “influenced” by Mrs. Palmer, how on earth can poor Takoo’s medicine or incantations help her? I believe that our imperious little mistress has caused the girl to believe that an Old Hige is sucking her and that she is doomed to die within a few days. It would not be difficult to get Millicent to believe that; all her life she has been surrounded by superstition; she herself is convinced that her grandfather controls ghosts and can work wonders. She knows that Mrs. Palmer is her enemy; only Mrs. Palmer, then, can induce her to believe that she is no longer bewitched. Millicent’s obsession is so strong that a blister has appeared on the spot where she imagines the Old Hige sucked her. The girl’s own mind is working on her body; that is how I understand the matter. So I think that only Mrs. Palmer can bring her to believe that she will get well. Mrs. Palmer may undertake to do this if you beg her to, but she will demand a price for the service. And it will be damned awkward for you to ask the favour. I rather like the girl though; I knew her slightly before I came here, and I knew her grandfather—the white one. He died not so long ago, and he was fond of her in his way; he did a good deal for her—and for me, so far as he could. He was kind to me. I should like to think I could do something he would be thankful for. . . .” Rider’s voice died out as though he were indulging in some secret reminiscence.
With elbows planted on knees, with his face buried in his hands, Robert pondered over what the other man had said. Rider was assured that Millicent’s life was at stake, and was suggesting that perhaps it might be saved, but in one way only. He, Robert, must use what influence he possessed with a woman whom, he now saw so clearly, he had come to suspect and even to detest, though but a few days ago he would have said he loved her.
He raised his head. “I don’t know if I shall succeed in getting Mrs. Palmer to let this poor girl alone, Rider,” he said, “but I will try. I feel that I am in some way responsible for her predicament. If I had not come here, if I had not engaged her services, above all, if . . . if she had not been with me in this place that night—and it was I who made her remain—she would not be in this awful condition. I must help her if I can. I will speak to Annie about her, but I am not hopeful.”
“You can but do your best,” said Rider kindly.
“When do you think I should see Mrs. Palmer?”
“As soon as possible,” answered Rider gravely. “Millicent spoke only the truth when she told you she was dying.”
Robert shivered, then rose abruptly, and went into his room. He emerged with a hat and cloak, for it had begun to rain slightly. Dark clouds had swept across and obscured the sky while they had been talking, the night had grown chill and eerie, a moaning wind came in from the sea. It was as if the dark spirit that brooded over Rosehall was affecting even the material world.
He called for his horse, and one of the boys brought it round to him after a little while. He mounted and rode away.
When he got to the Great House it seemed plunged in darkness, but he knew that there might be lights and people awake to the rear of it, in spite of the hour. His rap at the great front doors convinced him he was right in his conjecture; the doors were soon opened by Annie herself. She did not seem surprised to see him.
“Come in, Robert,” she said, “and take off your cloak. You must be tired after your long ride to Montego Bay and back.”
“You know I went to Montego Bay?” he asked.
“Why, certainly, Ashman told me. I know you went to see Millicent too; I needn’t say who told me that; it is immaterial. Well?”
She had led the way into the dining-room as she spoke; she seated herself now in one of the chairs and motioned him to another close by. The candelabrum was placed on the table by which he sat. It brightly illuminated her face and hair and bosom. Her bodice, he noticed, was cut very low, revealing most of her bosom.
Her eyes were fixed on his and the light in them was soft. Her lips were slightly parted. Not a strong and dominating, but a weak and helpless woman she appeared.
Again it struck him, as it always did, that she was a wonderfully beautiful woman. Now that he was in her presence he wondered once more if the things said about her could be true, though his reason clamoured a warning. The fascination of her was strong tonight; she seemed to exert all her power of allure and appeal. Looking at him in the warm yellow light of the wax candles, she saw the trouble in his face, guessed the surge of emotions in his mind. He was still possessed with desire for her. Whatever the stern purpose with which he had come there that night he might yet be rendered as plastic as clay in the potter’s hands.
With a quick movement she bent forward and placed her hand on his.
“Are you still thinking badly of me, Robert?” she murmured.
His impulse was to take her in his arms. A wild impulse which he fought to conquer. Her arm lengthened, it crept up to his shoulder. “Do you think I am the murderess, the witch, that that young woman called me, Robert? Do you hate me? Do you believe that I have injured her? Oh, I know what you have been told; there were many people in Takoo’s yard to hear. He said I was an Old Hige, didn’t he, and had bewitched his grandchild? And you believed it? Your belief in my guilt is my reward for loving you, isn’t it, Robert?” Before he could guess what she would be at she had flung herself on her knees before him. “Because I love you I must suffer,” she moaned. “And yet you told me that you loved me!”
He stooped and lifted her up; without quite realising what he did he placed her on his knees and put his arms around her. Her own arms were thrown about his neck and her lips were pressed on his. Then she whispered: “So in spite of all, you do love me a little still!”
“No one can help loving you, Annie,” he cried: again he was under the dominance of her will, her beauty, her personality. “You are very lovely, very adorable; but”—he forced himself to say it—”very terrible also.”
“Yes. This poor young woman—everybody believes that you are the reason why she is suffering, dying, and that is awful. It is a crime, if true.”
“Do you believe it is true?” she asked, modulating her voice to a cooing whisper. “Do you believe it is true?”
He remembered what Rider had said to him; he must not allow himself to forget what had brought him here.
“I don’t believe that you are a witch, Annie, or any of that sort of nonsense,” he protested, “but I am sure that you possess strange powers, and I know you dislike Millicent. What at any rate is true is that she believes that you have everything to do with her illness, that you have doomed her to death; and I think that only you can rid her mind of that strange belief, and I am asking you to do it.”
He paused; she made no reply, and he continued:
“Don’t you see that if you don’t do what you can you will be responsible for her death just as much as if you killed her with your own hands? And already they say——”
“That I am a murderess. Oh, yes, I know. She said so in your hearing; she—a woman like that, Robert, tried to paint me black in your eyes. And because she is sick from fright you come to me to ask me to help her to get a stupid idea out of her mind.” She laughed. “How generous, or how foolish, you must think me!”
He lifted her, gently but firmly, and put her back on her own chair. That laugh had jarred upon him. There was a merciless timbre in it.
She saw she had made a false move; she asked quietly, with almost perceptible self-repression: “What do you want me to do?”
“You know,” he said haltingly, “what she believes.”
“Yes, I have heard.”
“Can you rid her mind of that idea, cause her to become convinced that she is mistaken, that she will get well?”
“Why do you think I can do this? Who suggested that I could?”
He would not answer; to do so would be to give away Rider, and he felt that she was seeking for information.
“Do you, too, imagine that I put this woman in the condition she is in?” she insisted, “and that I can take her out of it?”
Bluntly he answered, “Yes.” For a picture of Millicent weeping had risen before him, and Annie’s fascination had suddenly failed.
She stiffened, anger gleaming from her eyes. “Then I am a very dangerous person,” she exclaimed, “and greatly to be feared.”
Her anger inspired him with a similar emotion.
“That is so,” he answered as sharply, “but I do not fear you, Annie.”
“Your woman does!”
“That is an admission that she has reason to fear you.”
“It is an admission of nothing! You have come here to quarrel with me on her account; putting her against me! Do you understand that that is an insult?”
“Then you refuse to help her?”
She studied his face for some moments, and again her attitude changed. Again she became soft and clinging.
“Robert, if you want me to help her, of course I shall; but you have misunderstood me much. How have I been able to injure her? It is her own guilty mind, and her own beliefs, that have afflicted her. I left Rosehall two nights ago, yes, but it is only an assumption that I went to Takoo’s place. There was someone with me, a boy from this estate. Let me call him and you can ask him where I went; he was with me all the time. Can I not leave Rosehall without people thinking, and you above all, that it is to commit a crime? Good God! have you no faith in me whatever, Robert?”
He made no suggestion that the lad should be summoned; she knew he would not. That would have shown brutally that he disbelieved her. Not that she was afraid of any interrogation, for the boy had been carefully trained as to what he was to say and would not have dared to add a word of his own.
“I hate the woman,” she continued, “but is not that natural? Remember, she was with you when I came to your house; she had been in your arms. And you, just the night before that, had been in mine. What woman could easily tolerate that, if she really loved you? That girl was trying to take you away from me; you know that. And she defied and cursed and abused me before your face—she. Then fear came upon her; she believes I am a witch. I have told you before that we have to rule these people by fear, and I, a woman, must encourage their foolish ideas if I am to hold my own amongst them. Don’t you ever think of my position here, in spite of all that I have said to you? And now you come to tell me of my strange powers, and to ask me to help her! I answer that I will try for your sake, but how am I to know that I shall succeed? I cannot control her mind; I know nothing about what diseases she may be suffering from; I only know that she has tried to injure me. But because you ask it I will do my best for her. How shall I do it: send her a message, bid them to bring her to see me—for you would hardly expect me to go to her, would you?”
He saw the difficulty. “I can make no suggestion,” he said. “I must leave it to you to find a way.”
“Very well. I will send to Takoo and ask him to come to me; I promise you that I will try my best. I can do no more. Are you satisfied?”
He was grateful. She had spoken with a great show of sincerity; there was an appeal to him in her voice, in her look. “When will you do this, Annie?” he inquired.
“Tomorrow. You may depend upon it that there will be no unnecessary delay. And if I succeed—what happens to me, Robert; what are you going to do with this girl?”
“Nothing.” He was emphatic. “I don’t think she will want to remain in this neighbourhood.”
“And you—are you going to remain with me at Rosehall?”
She perceived his hesitation, knew that he wished to speak the truth, did not believe that he spoke the truth when he answered, heavily, “Of course.” She felt, as she had done before, that he was slipping away from her; though she still fascinated him when he was in her presence and she appealed to his chivalry and his desire. She realised that the one man she had ever loved was being wrenched from her by circumstances stronger than herself.
“You don’t want to,” she said bitterly.
He tried to deny this, did deny it, and she let him go on with his protestations for a while.
Then she rose and came and stood before him, lifted his head towards her with her hands and bent her face towards his. “I have promised to do what I can for this girl,” she said; “are you not satisfied? You are all the world to me; would you leave me now?”
“I will remain, Annie,” he replied, helpless. For the life of him he could say nothing else.
“Stay up here with me tonight, and go on staying,” she pleaded; “whatever happens, let us love one another. You can do what you like with me, Robert, and you are the only man of whom that has ever been true.”
“I will stay at Rosehall, but not with you tonight,” he urged. “I am weary and worried; I have been living the devil of a life since I have been here. It seems as though I had been at it for months, not merely weeks.”
“Sweetheart, stay! I want you, I want you ever so much! Don’t leave me in my loneliness tonight, for I am very unhappy. Tell me that you will stay!”
She was on his knees and pressing close to him, her arms about his neck, her face against his, and the pleading note in her voice. All her great power of allurement seemed alive and intent upon his surrender. He spoke no word in reply. But she knew that again she had won her way with him.