The White Witch of Rosehall
At about nine o’clock the next morning Robert was at his work in the cane-fields. His face was drawn, his brow dark with anger and self-loathing. He had weakly yielded to the blandishments of Annie after having made up his mind to break away from her, and he hated himself in consequence. Yet he kept saying to himself that only by doing what she wished at present could he help the unfortunate young woman who believed herself to be on the point of death. He remembered that Rider had said, on the night before, that for any assistance for Millicent for which he might ask Annie Palmer he would have to pay a price.
The price would have seemed nothing a week before; indeed it would have been a privilege. But now he knew too much. Annie startled even while attracting him. He wished to get away from her; today he was thinking of England with an almost overpowering nostalgia. He had had enough of Jamaica. Yet, only a few hours before, he had promised this woman to remain with her, and now he felt that he must break that promise, come what might. It is true that on her side she had pledged herself to help Millicent, and so rid him of his feeling of self-reproach. And if she kept her word would he not be morally obliged to keep his?
He was afraid of her: he admitted that to himself quite frankly. He was as courageous as most other men who were accounted brave. But all these dark powers of the mind, which Rider was convinced were possessed by Mrs. Palmer, and all these darker uses that she made of them, seemed to him to be not dangerous only but loathly. There was something unclean about them, and consequently about her. She was still young, she had had three husbands, and all of them had died violent deaths. Love could turn to hatred. Her vanity, wounded through any rejection of her by him, a rejection in the spirit if not in actual fact, would arouse the worst devils in her heart. She would know what he felt; he sensed that she had followed pretty closely the various changes of his mind the night before. She would feel scorned, spurned, and then might come to her the irresistible temptation to show him that he could not treat her lightly and escape. Yes; he admitted that he was afraid of her, as seemed most or all of those who had come into close contact with her. That perhaps accounted for her escape up to now from the consequences of her acts; that and the unsettled condition of the country and the difficulty there must be in collecting trustworthy evidence against her, who was as wily as she was bold.
He noticed that Ashman openly scowled at him this morning. Ashman knew where he had been last night, and raged at the failure of his hopes and plans to alienate him from Annie Palmer. Millicent had gone, and Ashman had heard, for he had sought the information, of Millicent’s plight; he concluded that Millicent would shortly disappear from the scene and that Robert would reign at Rosehall; last night, he argued, there must have been a complete reconciliation between Rutherford and Annie Palmer. Burbridge also, Robert observed, had spoken to him nervously this morning; Burbridge, who had been so very outspoken on the previous night. It was not that Burbridge actually believed that his words would be reported to Mrs. Palmer, though, in the jealousy that sometimes raged among the minor employees of an estate, anyone was quite capable of mean treachery towards another. But Burbridge knew that a woman might eventually wheedle out of a man the very secrets of his mind. He cursed himself for having been so brutally frank, for having at last denounced so openly a woman whom he detested and feared.
But Rider’s demeanour had not been at all different. Perhaps Rider knew that Robert had done his best; perhaps Rider had guessed what would happen. Anyhow, there had been no restraint about him when he had greeted Robert an hour or so before.
And now it was Rider who came up to him, cantering smartly on his horse. “Ashman has sent me to summon you, Rutherford,” he said quietly, when he drew up at the young man’s side. “An important message has come from Montego Bay, and all the white men on the estate are wanted up at the Great House. Burbridge already knows. Let’s ride along together. These fellows”—he indicated the field labourers—”may go on working for a few minutes without our eye on them.”
They rode off, Rider making no allusion to anything that had previously passed between them, and Robert, though wishing to do so, not knowing exactly how to open the subject that was uppermost in his mind.
In the dining-room of the Great House, where they were told that Mrs. Palmer was awaiting them, they found Ashman, Burbridge, the chief mechanic and the chief carpenter, both young Scotsmen who usually kept to themselves and who, though their status did not seem to imply it, were much better paid than the book-keepers. There was a stranger there also, a man of middle age, who had come in about fifteen minutes before.
Mrs. Palmer opened the conversation. Rider keeping himself in the background, watched her closely. He could not but admire her coolness, her matter-of-fact attitude. Everybody there knew, with the exception of the stranger, that she had made one of her book-keepers her lover, but that did not in the least embarrass her. What they knew and what they felt was a matter to which she seemed to give no attention at all.
“I have got a message from the magistrates in Montego Bay,” she began, in her clear, carrying voice, “that the slaves of this parish have made up their minds not to work after New Year’s Day. They believe that their freedom has been granted to them from that day, and it is feared that there may be trouble.”
“Yes,” broke in the stranger, who was a planting attorney and connected with the local militia, “and the slaves have already heard that Sunday next is to be counted by us as one of the three days’ holiday they are allowed at Christmas time. We have heard that they will refuse to accept that decision.”
“Refuse!” Mrs. Palmer laughed a little scornfully.
“I think they mean it,” said the man, “but of course we must not give in to them. These infernal ministers and missionaries are the curse of Jamaica. They are giving us any amount of trouble and may cause bloodshed. But there you are. We have got to face this insubordination and put an end to it. We can only do it if we stand together.”
“Sunday is Christmas,” said Ashman; “and today is Friday. I don’t see why we should give these people from Sunday to Wednesday night to go idle and get drunk; I have already made mine to understand that they will have to be at work on Wednesday morning. That’s fixed, and they know better than to grumble about it to my face. I have known for some time that there have been palavers and plottings all around; I have surprised one on Palmyra myself. But there won’t be much trouble here or on Palmyra, I fancy.”
“No,” said Mrs. Palmer quietly; “we have put the fear of God—or of the Devil—into their hearts. We know how to manage our people on these properties, Mr. Hancock.”
“So I have been told,” replied Hancock, a little dryly. “Well, there isn’t one proprietor or attorney we have sounded who does not agree that we must include Sunday as one of the Christmas holidays. Considering it is Christmas Day, and that the law is that we must give three days including Christmas Day, we are well within our rights. I believe that the parsons want Sunday to be spent in prayer, and the lazy brutes we have want to pray the first day and debauch the next three. We won’t have it, that’s all! But we think it would be a good thing for all the white men on the estates to be prepared for any emergency; that is why we are sending round to them. You now understand what the situation is.”
“And we’ll have it well in hand, never fear,” added Ashman. “Have you sent to Spanish Town to let the Governor know what may happen in these parts?”
“No; we don’t think that is necessary; in fact, we think we’d better not. The Government, Mr. Ashman, is secretly with these missionaries and slaves—we are in a devil of a position when it comes to getting justice and our rights, I can tell you. The Government backs up the negroes whenever it can; this Governor seems to have been sent out to do nothing but that. We’ll never get fair play from him any more than from the English Government; so we have to do what we can for ourselves. But there’s a good lot of fight left in us still!”
“I for one,” said Mrs. Palmer coldly, “am prepared to make no concessions at all. The better you treat these people, the worse they are. If you give way on one point they expect you to give way on all. They will be at work on Wednesday morning on Rosehall and Palmyra, whatever happens; I shall myself see to that.”
“See also that the white men here are armed on Tuesday,” insisted Mr. Hancock, “that is why I asked to see them myself; and, of course, any of the chief negroes you can trust.”
The conference was over; Mr. Hancock rose to say good-bye. He would visit some other properties during the rest of the day. He was doing this as a duty and as a labour of love. He believed that the estate proprietors and attorneys were being treated with the gravest injustice for the sake of slaves who, so far as he could see, had nothing in the world to complain of. The unfortunate owners had all Mr. Hancock’s sympathy. He was virtuously proud of being able to do something for them, his own class.
The men were dismissed; but Annie gave Robert a signal to linger behind. When the others had ridden away she said to him:
“You see now, I need your presence in the Great House. You wouldn’t like to leave me unprotected, would you?”
“No,” he answered quite truthfully, for if a woman needed protection he would not hesitate in affording her what he could of it. “But you suggested only a while ago that there was no danger here.”
“It would not do to confess any fear,” she retorted readily, “and there may be no real danger. But how can I be certain? If I am alone in this house and the slaves were to get out of hand suddenly, what would happen to me? There should be someone here with me, at this time especially. You will remove your things up here today?”
He shook his head. “That is impossible, Annie. That is the one thing I cannot do.”
She looked at him long and searchingly. “Very well,” was all that she said.
Before leaving he asked her, endeavouring to speak casually: “You have sent for Takoo as you said you would?”
“This morning. Two messengers went, one to his daughter’s house and one to his own. I’ll let you know if he is coming to see me.”
“Thank you, Annie,” he said, with real appreciation, and left feeling far more kindly disposed towards her than he had been an hour before.
He did not believe that she ran any risk; she had indicated as much. But he did not realise she had divined that, whatever had been the reason of his objection to living at the Great House before, it was now his reluctance to be constantly with her. Perhaps if she had begged and cajoled him again, as she had done last night, he might have yielded; he did not find it easy to resist a woman’s imploring. But Annie Palmer had her upsurgings of pride, and now she was bitterly angry. She was more used to being sued than to suing.
On going back to his work he met Rider, and paused for a few words. He now said what he had been wanting to say to Rider. “I got her to promise to help Millicent,” he remarked, “but I don’t think she is altogether pleased with me, Rider. I don’t seem able to say or do the right thing all the time.”
“None of us are,” said Rider sententiously, “but I am sure you have done your best. Leave it there, Rutherford. We are likely to have our hands pretty full with other things during the next week or so. Our lives may be in jeopardy, for all we know.”
“You seriously think it is as bad as that?”
“I do; we are in for serious trouble.”
“It may do good,” said Robert grimly; “it may end a lot of things.” Rider knew that he was thinking of himself and his relations with Annie; he was entangled and did not quite know how to break out of the net.
It rained again that night, and Robert kept to his quarters. The next day, Christmas Eve, not much work was done on the estate. The slaves had become excited, and no expostulations or threats could move them to continuous labour; the spirit of the season affected them, as well as some secret understanding of momentous events that were to come to pass. But the spirit of the season affected the white men on the estate also; it was Christmas Eve, and those who were from the Old Country were thinking of how it would be just then in England and in Scotland; little given as they were to day-dreaming, their minds went back to their homes and to the past, and for the time they ceased to be mere cogs in the machinery of a sugar estate. During the late afternoon Robert caught a glimpse of Annie on horseback; she was riding about the property. She passed fairly near to him but seemed oblivious of his presence. He concluded that she was still displeased with his last refusal to come to live at the Great House. He wondered if she had yet heard from Takoo. He thought it likely that she had not.
For he too had heard nothing from Takoo. That the old man had removed Millicent he knew; Rider had told him; Rider had heard this from Burbridge. The latter had been spoken to by Rider, who had made a point of assuring him that Robert would never betray his friends. When night had fallen on Christmas Eve, therefore, the three men forgathered in their quarters talking of trivialities. Then, somewhat to Robert’s surprise, Burbridge mentioned that he had again heard that afternoon about Millicent; Psyche had told him.
“Where is she?” asked Robert.
“That I don’t know; I don’t think Psyche knows, or she would have mentioned it to me. She has been commanded by Takoo to some sort of ceremony they are having for Millicent; Psyche says they are going to try to take off the haunting, to lay the ghost that is killing the girl. Psyche was ordered not to say where this is to take place, but I got it out of her. These people have secret meetings on the estates, where they carry on all sorts of strange practices, some of which are horrible. There is to be one of them tomorrow night.”
“Where?” asked Rider.
Burbridge named the spot. “Psyche is a relative of Millicent’s, and of course will go. Tomorrow is a holiday, anyway, and the gathering is to be on Palmyra. I am not supposed to know; if I knew officially I might have to report it. But during these Christmas holidays the slaves have freedom and even licence; it has been so for generations. It would be madness to try and interfere with them now.”
“You know,” observed Robert, “it appears to me that you are as much afraid of these people as they are of you?”
“Of course we are,” said Rider; “it has been a case of fear on both sides. Fear is in the very texture of the mind of all the white people here; fear and boredom, and sometimes disgust. That is why so many of us drink, friend Rutherford.”
“I should like to see this exorcism, or whatever you may call it,” said Robert suddenly; “it is strange that Takoo has not communicated with me.”
“You forget,” Rider reminded him, “that he probably knows that you spent Thursday night at the Great House, after you had left his place near Montego Bay. He may have misunderstood that. Even if he did not, he may think it wisest to keep Millicent’s whereabouts as secret as possible for the present, though this myal or exorcism ceremony of his tomorrow night is too big an affair to be kept entirely secret.”
“But Annie promised me she would send for Takoo and do what she could for the girl,” mused Robert. “I wonder if she has done it. If she has, why should it be necessary to have this African exorcism?”
“Has Mrs. Palmer kept her word, I wonder?” muttered Rider.
“You think she hasn’t?” asked Robert; “but I believed she would do that at least. She left me no reason whatever to doubt that she would.”
“And if you asked her she might say that she tried, but that Takoo would not come to her,” Rider explained. “How can we ever be certain as to what she will or won’t do? We can only hope she will keep her word. Besides,” he added judicially, “she may actually have sent for Takoo and he may have refused to obey her summons. He would be naturally suspicious, you know. He knows her, too, in some respects, far better than any of us do. Probably he has refused.”
They were silent for a little while, Robert recalling to his mind how carefully Annie had avoided even looking at him that afternoon. He recalled also that long and searching look she had given him yesterday when he bluntly refused, with finality in voice and manner, to take up his abode at the Great House. His heart sank. Could she have abandoned Millicent to her fate, after all? Then indeed the girl’s chances of life might be slight, in spite of all that others might do to aid her.
Mr. Rider seemed to guess something of what was passing in his mind. He placed a hand on Robert’s knee. “You have done all you could,” he said, “and now we must leave the rest to Providence. Excuse my sanctimonious language; one can never wholly escape the influence of one’s profession. You want to go to this exorcism, Rutherford?”
“I would like to, yes, if I could do so without being seen. I suppose the people would object to my presence?”
“They would, unless you consented to take part in the ceremony.”
“And that is——?”
“It is a thing no white man in Jamaica could do and retain his self-respect and the respect of any other white man,” said Rider decisively. “You would become one of them, don’t you understand, a devil worshipper or something very much like that. Not that many white men don’t worship the Devil; I think he is the prevailing deity out here. But they don’t do it along with negro slaves, dancing and moaning, contorting themselves and grovelling in all sorts of open abominations. There are different orders of devil worship. Mine is drink. But the obeah order—phew!”
“Is Annie Palmer any better than an obeahwoman?” demanded Robert with savage contempt: he had begun to suspect that she had tricked him.
“No; but she works in her own way, and that is the difference.”
“Yet you think I can see this ceremony?”
“If you are cautious. I will go with you; we may be able to hide ourselves and watch; at any rate we can try. Will you go with us, Burbridge?”
“No, my friend,” replied Burbridge. “I am not even supposed to know about what is going to take place, and to witness it without trying to stop it would condemn me in the eyes of every proprietor in Jamaica. Your position is different from mine.”
“True,” laughed Mr. Rider a little bitterly. “I am at best but a temporary hand, and no one regards me as a responsible being. In another week I shall probably be at the drink again. And Rutherford can leave soon—as I am sure he has decided to do—and he’ll be all the better for it. Well, as I don’t count I can take risks, and in any case I know that my time on Rosehall is rapidly drawing to an end. Our lives may be rapidly drawing to an end also,” he added.
“We’ll go tomorrow, then,” said Robert. “That is decided.”
There came a rap at the door. A boy handed a note to Robert. It was from Annie. “I have not been able to find Takoo,” it ran; “he seems to be keeping out of sight.”