The White Witch of Rosehall
Christmas day dawned cool and bright, the wind coming in briskly from the sea which, stirred and fretted by it, flashed and sparkled in a glory of green and purple and broke in noisy billows upon the shore. The burnished surfaces of long green leaves, narrow spears of the cane plants, and of swaying fronds of palms, reflected back the sunlight, so that the whole earth seemed bathed in splendour and steeped in flaming light.
There was brightness everywhere; every object was suffused with it. In the hollows of the hills which formed the background to the land-and sea-scape in the midst of which was Rosehall, masses of mist had rolled and ascended and floated about an hour before, shrouding the view and spreading like a soft wide cloud; but soon this mist had melted away before the triumphant progress of the sun which had swiftly transformed the opal and faint pink of the morning sky into a dazzling blue. The tang of the salt sea was in the air, poinsettia trees and other flowering plants flamed red in the sunshine in which they rejoiced. And though noises broke the stillness, noises shrill and piercing, dominant, insistent, they were not those of labour but had a special implication of their own.
For this morning no horn or conchshell sounded its far-carrying melancholy note to summon the slaves to their daily task. No crack of driver’s whip or harsh command was heard. In the pastures the cattle stood idle, from the chimneys of the boiling-house arose no smoke. Banked were the fires today, and banked would they remain for some three days. In the negro village on the estate men and women wandered about at will. Their time was theirs to do with entirely what they wished.
The Christmas holidays had come, the three days of grace which were given to the people by law, to pass in frolic and in merry-making, or in complete rest.
Even as Rutherford gazed from his room upon the scene outside, striving hard to realise that this was Christmas, he caught sight of a crowd of people who came towards the book-keepers’ quarters, singing and dancing. Burbridge joined him, and together they waited to see what would happen.
At sight of the white men the crowd raised a cheer and came hurrying onwards. Arrived, they stood displayed as a variety of figures, some utterly ludicrous, others rather tastefully attired in garments of variegated colours, and every one of them as cheerfully vociferous as if none had a care in the world. Two of them had got themselves up as animals. One was garbed in a dried cow’s skin, with the horns towering upon his head and the tail sticking out behind; he leaped and bellowed as though he were a bull in pain, though probably he intended to impersonate a bull in ecstasy. Another one had rigged himself up as a horse, with mane and head complete, and he capered about upon his two legs neighing merrily, whirling round and round, and kicking out with feet that were quite human and bare. Some of the performers wore masks, hideous things, devil faces, with grinning teeth, elongated noses, and other fantastic appurtenances. But there were also a number of young girls, clothed all in red, with their robes trimmed with lace, and with flaunting feathers in their beaver hats, and these were headed by a leader, or Queen, who took herself very seriously indeed and gave commands to her subjects of a day with quick, imperious voice. Robert knew that in these red girls he saw a Jamaica “Set”, and that other “Sets”, Reds and Blues respectively, would be dancing about the towns of Jamaica during the next couple of days. These girls before him, Burbridge said, would be going down to Montego Bay tomorrow to take part in the promenading there and to uphold the honour of the Reds against the Blues, with as much zeal (Robert imagined) as did the rival factions in the ancient Roman circus. The Red Set represented the soldiers of the King, the Blues stood for the sailors, and between the two there was a mighty rivalry. The Rosehall people were Reds: just why, they themselves did not know. It had been so for years, and so, therefore, it must continue to be.
The red-clothed girls were now dancing quite gracefully for the amusement of the white men, and when Mr. Rider came up, as he did presently, they hailed him as “parson”, hesitated as if in doubt as to how he would take their gyrations on a Sunday, and then went on with redoubled vigour when they noticed that he neither looked nor spoke disapproval. From the estate village opposite came the throbbing of drums, and there too the festivities were in full progress. True, it was Sunday, and the missionaries in this parish had sought to impress upon the people that Christmas Day, falling as it did upon the first day of the week, should be spent decorously, in prayer and in thanksgiving for the great deliverance which the Lord was about to work for his faithful followers. But the spirit of Christmas had seized upon these people, and, anyhow, missionaries had never been encouraged to visit Rosehall. Consequently the musicians pounded their drums with energy, shrill pipes emitted weird sounds, human bulls and horses, and Red Sets girls, and shuffling couples, moved and whirled to the tunes given forth, and shouted, screamed, jested and laughed, and enjoyed themselves immensely.
In the village the cooking fires were already alight. There was to be a feast that day. And yet everyone knew that Christmas was not celebrated on Rosehall as it ought to be and as it was on other estates. The custom was that, in the Christmas holidays, the owners or their attorneys should give a great dinner to all the slaves, a dinner consisting of roast meat, and cakes and rum and other delicacies. He should throw open the Great House to his people, and in the big drawing-room they should be allowed to dance the whole Christmas night away. More, he too was expected to dance with them, he and the other white men on the estate. There was always a wild fraternisation on this particular occasion: all differences were ignored, all caste distinctions set aside. It was the rule, and though this year there were not many estates in St. James where this rule was being observed, it had always been done, and in other parts of the island the custom was still held in respect. But Rosehall was different. It had long been so. Mrs. Palmer had not had her people up to the Great House since the death of her first husband; since then there had been no special Christmas feast for them; she had not put herself out in any way to make this her day of rejoicing with them.
This ignoring of an established West Indian custom had affected her white employees also; she held them, even at Christmas time, at arm’s length. Mr. Ashman might have prevented this to a certain extent; had he chosen to carry out the rule of Christmas kindliness and consideration, Annie Palmer would not have prevented him. So long as she herself was not directly inconvenienced it would not have mattered to her what was done; it was not the extra expenditure that influenced her to indifference and neglect. But Ashman himself was indifferent; he knew he was not liked by white or black on the property and did not see why he should put himself to any trouble to facilitate them when he was not directly instructed by the mistress to do so. Two days before Christmas he had distributed to each of the slaves the few yards of cloth for dress which the law demanded should be given once a year. And the few pounds of salted fish, and the straw hat, to each, and the needles and the thread: all these had been handed out. But the law said nothing about a Christmas dance and a Christmas feast, though public opinion, white public opinion, held that they formed part of the rights, or at least the privileges, of all the bond people.
So, this Christmas, the chief mechanic and the chief carpenter of Rosehall (who superintended the work done in their respective lines on Palmyra estate also) had gone off to Montego Bay for the day and Mr. Ashman would dine alone, for he had not been bidden as in times past to the Great House for Christmas cheer. The dancing crowd had come from Ashman’s house, where they had gone to wish him a merry Christmas, to which he had made some sort of response. He had risen to the occasion otherwise and donated to them sundry bottles of liquor and a ham, and he had given them a few pieces of money. He might despise or dislike them, but he did not relish the idea that they should regard him as “a stingy backra”, a parsimonious white man. Here was the joint in his armour. They could pierce his pride and his vanity here. And they knew it.
Now they were come to do the honours to the book-keepers and to reap their reward. Of course, they should first have gone up to the Great House with their greeting and their dance, but Mrs. Palmer did not care to be disturbed early on any morning, unless she had given the word to be called betimes. And the dancers and musicians felt that she cared little about this annual function of theirs. It would take place outside the Great House later on, however, and she would come out on the porch and watch their antics, and she would make the presents that were expected of her. For even Annie Palmer, indifferent to so much else, could not have brought herself to refuse these people the gratuity which the Christmas dancing drew from every other white planter in the country. She might neglect the annual ball, punish them severely for ordinary misdemeanours, terrify them, do things in their sight which others might wish to hide from them. But she would not let them go from her presence on Christmas Day without a gift. There are certain acts that no one can dare to be guilty of and escape self-contempt. No one can completely rise above the influence of one’s time and its implicit obligations.
Rider had little to give to these merry-makers, but what he had he knew must be offered freely. Burbridge was in not much better case. But the financial difficulties of the situation were solved by Robert who, when he thought they had seen enough of the dancing and heard quite a sufficiency of cacophony, threw a handful of silver among the crowd. This caused on the instant a wild scramble, in which the horse and the bull joined, these incontinently flinging off their disguises so as the better to snatch at the rolling coin. It was a fairly large sum that Robert flung to them, more than they would get from any other single source. When, after much jostling, pushing, swearing and screaming every coin had been picked up, and the crowd, with a loud “Merry Christmas, Massa,” and “God bless you, Massa,” had pirouetted away, the three men went inside to drink the egg-punch, the flip of beaten egg and rum, with nutmeg, which was the regular Christmas morning draught and which Psyche had prepared steaming hot, prior to the preparation of coffee.
But Rider would not have any rum in his flip. And the other two did not press him to make an exception of this Christmas wassail.
Burbridge had invited Robert and Rider to share pot luck with him today. Dinner would be eaten at one o’clock. Psyche had claimed, not without reason, to be able to prepare a plum pudding.
When the dinner hour drew nigh they met on the veranda as usual, and began talking about the Rosehall Christmas and the festival’s celebration elsewhere in the island. To Robert it seemed a miracle that a people known to be discontented, and said to be on the eve of a demonstration, should yet seem happy as had the slaves of the estate that morning; their conduct, in view of what was imagined about their intentions, did not appear to him to be reasonable.
It was Rider who pointed out to him that these slaves believed implicitly that sufficient to the day would be the evil thereof; meantime they took what came to them. “They may be frenzied rebels tomorrow,” he said, “but today is today, so they dance and enjoy themselves. I don’t know but that they are right.”
Just then Psyche announced in a triumphant tone of voice that dinner was ready, the Christmas feast that was to be eaten hours earlier than the dinner of any ordinary day.
They sat down to it, though Robert felt no inclination for festive repasts. He had to be of the company, however, if for no other reason than that he had insisted upon furnishing for it some madeira for which he had sent to Montego Bay on the Christmas Eve.
Psyche’s mother had been a cook, and Psyche had inherited a genius for cooking. More important perhaps than this inheritance, she had been taught by her mother to cook, and her abilities in this respect was one reason why Burbridge always felt that in her he possessed a treasure. Ordinarily she had no opportunity of displaying her skill, but on rare occasions like this Psyche was able to do herself justice, and today she had done herself more than justice. She gave them little oysters picked up with peppered vinegar. She served fish seasoned with sliced onions and rich butter sauce; her roast beef was tender and juicy and of noble flavour; her roasted guinea hen was done to perfection. And her plum pudding, with hot rum-and-butter sauce, was the real Jamaican plum pudding, black with fruit and flavoured with good old rum. On the table were rum and madeira, the rum tempered with cool coconut water, which at this time of day was better than lime-juice and sugar.
Mr. Rider’s eyes glowed with appreciation as the feast proceeded, and when Robert, thoughtlessly, asked him to have some wine his eyes snapped and he was about to accept. Then, with a great effort, he mastered his impulse. “Better not, Rutherford,” he said. “The time is coming, I am afraid, when I shall not be able to refuse, and I don’t feel like refusing even now. But if I touch the stuff today I may be done for during the next couple of weeks, or longer. I may go on drinking as long as there is anything to drink, and there is plenty here. Still, one glass mightn’t hurt me perhaps—eh, what do you say? But no, better not. I want to see tonight what is going to happen: you know what I mean. I am afraid that if I once taste that wine——”
“Very good,” said Robert hastily; “and I, too, don’t think I should have anything to drink. Fact is, I have been taking far too much since I have been here. There hasn’t passed a day when I haven’t drunk something strong, and lots of it some days. I drink too much.”
“We all do,” said Burbridge, “that is the custom here; and today being Christmas, I am not prepared to abstain. I have not been abstaining. If it were not for that wretched woman up at the House we should be able to enjoy our Christmas as we should. She is the bane of our lives!”
“Just as all roads lead to Rome,” smiled Rider, “so do all Burbridge’s remarks now tend towards Mrs. Palmer, in an uncomplimentary fashion. But he is right; strange as it is, we are all undoubtedly affected this Christmas Day by her actions.”
Robert nodded his head in gloomy acquiescence. This turn of the conversation expressed his own mood. This could not be a merry Christmas party for any man with humane impulses and feelings. And though he had just said he didn’t think he should take any liquor, he mechanically stretched out his hand for some wine, and continued to drink during dinner.
He knew that Burbridge was not allowing anything to disturb him; Burbridge had long since grown hardened to sights and sounds and actions that must have shocked and disgusted him once upon a time. But Rider was different; periodical drunkard though he was, his heart remained tender, not in a maudlin but in a real and true sense, and he had a gentleman’s instinct for fair play and generosity. As for himself, Robert realised now that he had come to have a genuine liking for the unfortunate young woman who had so quaintly and boldly, without meaning to be forward, insisted upon installing herself as his housekeeper. That, he felt with genuine sorrow, was scarcely a crime to be punished almost with madness and perhaps by actual death. She was naïve, foolish maybe, impetuous and reckless. Something of a savage. But bad and corrupt—no, he knew she was not that.
The meal ended quietly. Yet Psyche was, on the whole, well satisfied, for if Massa Rutherford was silent and showed but a poor appetite, Psyche knew the reason, and, as Millicent was her cousin, she felt that this loss of appetite was a fitting tribute to the condition of a member of her family.
Dinner over, the men again repaired to their veranda, where Burbridge tilted his chair against the wall, placed his feet against the railing, and very soon fell asleep, Rider and Robert were less somnolent, yet they too felt lethargic, depressed, burdened each by his own weight of thought, and not perhaps unaffected by the early Christmas meal. There were occasions when the meaning of his fallen estate came to Rider with a peculiar poignancy; today he felt his position with a more than exquisitely unpleasant keenness. Yet, he said to himself, it might actually have been worse. He knew he was helping young Rutherford, and he might be able to aid Millicent also: that was possible. So he was not quite useless, not utterly an outcast. And maybe, he thought, some day he might be able to give up the drink altogether; just as he could refuse it today, so he might be able to refuse it altogether in the future. But in his heart of hearts he doubted his strength.
When the thirst came upon him it was fierce and raging, not to be suppressed. He would believe sometimes that he had the craving under control at last, and would begin to plume himself upon that, when, suddenly, he was gripped by it and then would sell his shirt for a drink. Many such experiences had rendered him cynical about his resolutions; yet every now and then he would make such resolutions. Even while gravely doubting, he half believed, and at the root of this belief was hope. Today it came into his mind that perhaps, if he could get back to England, he might be able to open another and better chapter of his life. He thought of Robert; he too, if he remained in Jamaica, might become, if not an outcast (for he had means), at any rate a poor specimen of a man: he had seen such things. Robert would have a good career at home. It was better that he should return as quickly as possible. Even supposing that this girl, Millicent, whose paternal grandfather had been a gentleman and a man of authority in the country, should recover, that would actually not be for Rutherford’s good, unless he resolutely refused to remain in Jamaica. A lifelong liaison with the girl, and children, and drink, and no real obligation to work (which might mean more drink and other liaisons), what was there in all this save the deterioration of a young fellow who had fine instincts and was a gentleman? In the tropics some men throve; those were the men of stern fibre or of a sort of brutal hardness. These tropics, with their large servile population and small aristocracy of proprietors who lived in a world of the narrowest mental and moral horizons—what a horror they actually were! If they did not become physically the white man’s grave, they formed for him as deadly a spiritual sepulchre. It was death anyway.
“Why don’t you go back home, Rutherford?” he asked, apparently apropos of nothing, turning to watch how the young man would take his suggestion.
“That is exactly what I was thinking of,” replied Robert, somewhat surprised. “It is as if you had read my thoughts.”
“I am glad to hear it,” said Rider. “This is hardly the sort of place for you. If you go to Barbados later on, you know, you will go as the head, and then conditions will be different. But here——!”
“I don’t think Barbados will ever see me,” asseverated the younger man; “I have had enough of all this “eternal sunshine and happy, laughing people”. I can almost hear some of them laughing from here, they scream so loud. And yet it would not take much to make them cut all our throats, if what you yourself believe is true.”
“It is true,” said Rider, nodding his head decisively.
“Well, that’s just it. These slave tropics may look and sound mighty fine on the surface, but they are nastily dangerous underneath. Yes; I have come to the determination that they don’t suit me. But neither do they suit you, Rider.”
“I know that,” answered the other simply; “I found that out long ago.”
“Then why didn’t you leave?”
“I suppose I drifted along till it was too late. I had nothing to return to, you see; I feared that if I went back to England there would no longer be a place there that I could make for myself. Once here, I was in a sort of prison. Turn me out into the free world again, and I should be at my wits’ end. It was all cowardice and weakness, of course; and something worse. The life here, for a man like me, was infinitely easier than it could be in England. My duties were light, my pay was sufficient to keep me, and I could do what I pleased to a great extent without being called to account for it. I liked the life, at first; I didn’t realise what it was leading me to. I liked the drink; I didn’t grasp that it was making me a drunkard. When I did, I was down. And here am I. But you—as Burbridge is always saying—with you it is quite different.”
“I am going,” said Robert resolutely; “I have been coming to that conclusion, and I have decided within the last ten minutes. But I think you are wrong about yourself. You could go back—now. And now is the best time to go.”
“I cannot walk upon the wild waves, my dear boy, and sea captains do not give passages for nothing. And if I sent the hat round the results would be trifling, and I should suffer the shame of having begged in vain. Not that Englishmen are not sent home by their friends; they are. But I have no friends, and my few acquaintances would believe (and could not be blamed for believing) that I had merely fallen back upon a quite unoriginal method of raising drinks.”
He spoke flippantly to disguise the seriousness of his feeling.
“I have thought of that,” said Robert; “I wouldn’t have mentioned the matter if I hadn’t. But you can get the money for your expenses without any difficulty. I can advance it to you.”
Rider looked at him with a peculiar expression on his face.
“Advance?” he said. “You really mean that you will give me the money.”
“I couldn’t offer a man like you money,” returned Robert, somewhat embarrassed; “but once you were in England it would not be difficult for you to repay it.”
“You are offering it to me in the nicest way you can think of,” said Rider quietly. “You mean that if I can repay it I may; if I can’t, you won’t mind that. It’s deuced decent of you, Rutherford, and I thank you with all my heart.”
“Then you will go?”
“Gladly. That is——”
“If my resolution holds. If I don’t go back so badly to the drink before we can start, that I won’t be able to do the little things necessary and take myself to the ship.”
“That will be all right,” said Robert. “We’ll go together, and even if you are drunk I will carry you on board. I am strong enough to do that literally, you know.” He smiled as he spoke, but Rider knew he was in earnest.
“Good. It is agreed then. I might almost say that your coming to Jamaica was providentially designed in my interests, Rutherford; I should see a miracle in this thing if I were not disposed to be sceptical about any modern miracle. By Jove! To think that I might actually see the Old Country again! Might? I am going to! This is farewell to Jamaica for me.”
He fell to silence, thinking over this wonderful, unexpected stroke of good fortune. It was almost too good to be true.
Robert rose. “I am going over yonder,” said he, pointing in the direction of the negro village, “to see how those folk are enjoying themselves. They seem to be having high jinks.”
“And you had better get a couple of hours’ sleep when you come back,” advised his companion. “We may be up all night.”
Robert nodded and went off on foot, leaving Rider to think over alone the new prospect that he opened out before him. Rider knew it was through a feeling of delicacy that Rutherford had left him to himself.