The White Witch of Rosehall
The throbbing of distant drums came to their ears; it waxed and waned, rolled and staccatoed, seemed to die away, and then began again.
Other like sounds came to their hearing, from south and east and west, but Rider and Robert Rutherford pushed steadily on in the direction of this particular faint muttering and rumbling sound from the south, for Rider had carefully inquired his way and knew that he was right in persisting in his course.
“The other drummings are for dances,” he explained; “it may be Sunday night, but the people are making merry, though perhaps not so much so as they would have done a few years back. You could easily be misled by all these contradictory noises, but I know the way. I fancy that where we are going has been often used before for some startling ceremonies.”
They were both on foot. Horses might have betrayed their presence once they had arrived; indeed they might have been observed long before they could arrive. But Rider hoped that, by keeping within the shadow of the trees, they would not attract any attention. Many persons were moving about tonight, and it would not be strange if two white men should be seen abroad, so long as they were not noticed when close to the site of the projected exorcism.
The moon had risen. It was growing full-orbed. Preoccupied with his own affairs as he was, Robert had yet watched it night after night as it had increased in size and splendour, as it had grown from a slender sickle attended by one lustrous star, brightening in the west as the sun went down and then suddenly flashing into radiance with the swift dramatic coming of the tropical darkness, until it had become a globe of silver sailing serenely among the lesser lights which paled and disappeared as it pursued its progress to the sea. He had seen it bathe the looming hills and fields of cane in a soft argent glow, had seen the answering glimmer from the metallic inner surface of the multitudinous leaves, and had, unconsciously, been touched and moved by the beauty of the scene, so unlike anything he had ever known before. Tonight, however, he gazed at the moon with somewhat different feelings. It was like a lantern set up for the illumination of the earth, and they did not want to be seen. They were shunning observation. Darkness would be their kindest friend tonight. But even as he thought, a mass of cloud, materialising swiftly out of the shining blue, floated across the face of the moon and everything grew crepuscular, sombre, as though a dark shroud had been flung across the world. Presently the moon struggled out from behind the shadow, but now Robert noticed that here and there in the sky were other small banks of drifting cloud.
“Looks as if it were going to rain,” he said to Rider.
“It is quite likely it may rain later on; there has been a feel of it in the air for hours. Clouds are gathering. Even if it doesn’t rain we shall have spells of darkness soon,” Rider answered.
“I am hoping for that. I am wondering what would happen to us if these obeah people caught us spying on them.”
“They wouldn’t harm us physically tonight, unless they were ready for an instant outbreak, which is not probable,” said Rider. “But they would scatter; they would never allow us to see them breaking the law. Besides, they are keenly alive to ridicule, to contemptuous laughter: that is the one thing that these people shrink from. They may think we are foolhardy to flout ghosts and devils, yet when we laugh at them for their belief in such things they have an unpleasant feeling that they look like children or simpletons, and they are not happy. So they hide their faith and their curious cults from the eyes of the white man, though when a manifestation of these cults takes the form of a little poison in one’s morning coffee, the African’s religion becomes a very serious matter?”
“And they do poison?” asked Robert, thinking of what he had heard about old Takoo.
“Now and then, but only the desperate and really dangerous characters. The majority are safe enough to trust that way. When you consider their condition, and that they have set their hearts for years on becoming free, the wonder is that they have never attempted to wipe us out wholesale. You could hardly blame them if they did.”
They had now left Rosehall; they had ascended the low hills behind that estate, and were making their way carefully very near to where the principal cultivations of the bondspeople were; they had followed a trail made and used mainly by the slaves who had their plantations among these hills. The custom of the country, now reinforced by law, was that each slave should cultivate a small piece of his owner’s land for his own family’s sustenance. At least one half-day a fortnight, and more commonly a half-day a week, was allowed him for this purpose. The lands thus set aside were situated at some distance from that part of the estate farmed for the proprietor’s benefit and were usually among the surrounding eminences which could not economically be put under cane, or of which the soil was poor. Here, of a Saturday afternoon, would be found crowds of the people, hoeing the ground, weeding at the roots of their growing crops, digging holes for the planting of the yam or the potato in its season, making provision, in short, against anything like famine. Thus they in reality supported themselves by their labour, and here, as in every other rank of human society, differences made themselves plainly apparent.
For some of these people only worked as much as was necessary to ensure that they should have what foodstuffs they would need, while others took particular pains to get the most that they could out of the not very fertile soil. The latter wrestled with the earth and from it drew, not only sustenance but some degree of wealth. There were thousands of free blacks all over the country; there had been for decades. These had purchased their freedom with money gained by selling the surplus of their products, the yield of their little fields. Everything that they produced was theirs by custom and the force of public opinion; long since it had been found that if this were not to be so there would be very little effort put forth by the slaves on these plots of land. The price of a slave had steadily risen in the last twenty or thirty years, and still men and women bought their freedom by hard work and thrift. Takoo had done so some forty years ago. And Takoo, by what he made out of lands that he had since acquired by cash purchase, and even more by what he had been paid by awestruck people who went to him covertly for aid against dark supernatural powers (or for means to bring those powers to do their will), had accumulated what was for him and those in his position a respectable fortune. Most of what he had he intended for Millicent. He had said so openly. He had determined that she should be respected by all of her class and those below it, looked up to as a young woman of wealth, regarded as a superior, treated with deference. He had succeed in this aim; he was proud of his success because he was proud of her. But in the last few days his pride had given place to a horrible fear. And tonight he would know whether he had toiled all these years to good purpose or in vain.
The moon shining out brightly just when they were passing by a clearing, Rider with a gesture drew Robert’s eyes to some peculiar objects hung on trees here and there among the little plantations. Tiny bags were a few of these, others again were miniature bundles tied with dried tendrils or with string; one or two were the skulls of animals, cats they seemed.
“Protective charms,” he explained. “There are thieves everywhere, and these cultivations are left for days together with no one near them. They would be entirely at the mercy of predatory persons but for such obeah charms. There is hardly a man within a radius of twenty miles who would venture here by day or night to rob these provision grounds. He would believe that the magic inherent in the charms would work him harm. He might even think that a special ghost, perhaps a relative of the owner, haunted the particular ground he had robbed, and then his state would be almost as bad as Millicent’s and he would have to pay some obeahman heavily to take the ghost off him. His plight would be worse if it were the spirit of a child that was plaguing him; child ghosts seem to be particularly vicious.” Rider laughed, but somewhat sadly. “You may from this gather an idea of the difficulties which a practising parson has to contend with in this country. The irony of it is that some of them hardly ever guess what is going on under their very noses.”
Thrum, thrum, drrrrrrummm; thrum, thrum, drrrrrummm; the noise was nearer now. They had left the slave cultivations and were going through a wood. These two men were not accustomed to walking in the tropics, but the night was cool and excitement held them; they were conscious of no fatigue. The umbrageous trees reached high above their heads, their branches swishing gently as the wind went through them. Sometimes they thought they heard a movement near at hand, as though some heavy body were stealing parallel to them at no distance to speak of. It might be imagination, they argued, since the negroes would move about in groups on a night like this, and would certainly be talking among themselves. But whatever it was, these sounds were weird and thrilling. It came to Robert’s mind that they might almost have been the rustling of the shrouds of the dead who had risen from their graves to assist at a ritual whereby a struggle was to be conducted against the powers of darkness.
“Slow now, and be careful that our voices are not heard.” Rider’s admonition was whispered, and peering in front of him Robert could see a gleam between the tree trunks; noticed too that the gleam came from some open space beyond, and heard a wailing chant that mingled with the beating of the drums.
They stole forward quietly, until they must stop or shortly reveal their presence. Their point of vantage was good. Trees shielded them, and they, stood in shadow. About twenty yards away a concourse of people crouched upon the ground, forming a rude circle, and within this circle blazed a great fire which hissed and crackled and threw fierce sparks upwards and brought into fiery relief the strained, staring faces of the men and women from whose lips streamed forth an eerie, curious sound. Bodies swayed to right and left in unison with the rhythm of that chant, and the drum-throbs marked the cadences of the hymn of exorcism. It was nothing that even Rider had ever heard before, no Christian words or air; it was something that had come out of Africa and was remembered still. There were people in the swaying crowd who had been born in Africa, and in their minds and emotions they had travelled back to that dark continent tonight and were worshipping again some sinister deity with power and will to harm, one to be propitiated with sacrifice and who would not be turned aside from his designs by mere appeals and prayers for mercy.
It was nearly midnight. For over an hour must this chant have continued; for over an hour must these people have squatted there on the bare, damp earth, watching the roaring flames, singing, singing in that low monotonous voice, and waiting for what was to happen. A shudder passed through Robert; to his surprise he found that he too was slightly moving his body to the rhythm of the sound. Rider had himself better in hand, but the hypnotic influence of the scene did not leave him entirely unaffected. It had an appeal to the more primitive emotions. It stirred up something in the depths of one’s being. He could understand how devotees in pagan lands were moved at times almost to madness by the call and compulsion of their strange and horrible religions.
The roll and throb of the drums went on. Suddenly a wild burst of laughter rent the air and a young woman in the first row of the crowd pitched forward on her face, crying and laughing convulsively, twitching her limbs as in a fit. Hysterics had seized her, her nerves had given way; probably this was the first time she had participated in such an orgy, probably she knew Millicent and was filled with fears for herself, for who could be free from danger? But no one took any notice of her; only the tempo of the chant quickened, there was a note of exultation in it now. There were to be wonderful manifestations tonight, and the spirits of the older hierophants rejoiced and revelled in the anticipation of what was to come. Not often did they dare to practise thus the ritual of an obscene faith, the magic of Old Africa. The law forbade it, and the masters struck at it with an iron hand.
To one side of the fire was a bench, parallel to the right of the two hidden men, but just now it was unoccupied. Robert scanned the crowd keenly for some glimpse of Millicent and her grandfather; they were nowhere to be seen. He noticed, however, that at the farther opposite curve of the circle of human beings the crowd was not packed closely together. One could walk to and fro there without much difficulty. Behind it was a dense darkness created by the trees. Somewhere there, he concluded, Millicent was waiting.
It was midnight. No stroke of bell announced the hour; yet he knew it must be so, for at that instant, at a signal from a woman clothed in white, the chanting ceased. There was a deathly silence, a silence broken only by the crackling and spluttering of blazing wood. Then, where the people crouched sparsely, a lane was rapidly made, and from among the sheltering trees came a girl, walking with stiff, short steps, and a tall, gaunt man behind her. He himself was followed by a youth who bore something in his arms.
From the waist down Millicent was wrapped in a robe of purest white. The upper part of her body was bare, her breasts and arms were exposed completely. Her hair was covered, also with white, and where the blister had appeared on her chest was marked with white. Takoo was clothed from head to foot in flaming red, robed as a high priest of Sassabonsum or some other potent god of the African forests. In this robe of office he loomed taller than Robert or Rider had ever seen him before, and there was dignity in his gait and a gloomy earnestness in his gaze that seemed to inspire that crouching, silent audience with awe. Millicent had been given her instructions; she skirted the fire, reached the bench, and quietly sat down upon it. Her grandfather placed himself directly behind her. The boy who followed him stood by his side, and now it was seen that what he carried was a snow-white kid.
As the little group took up its position the chanting recommenced. But now it was louder, quicker, frenzied; now it was a passionate invocation, and the fire leaped higher as more fuel was thrown upon it, and the swaying people became wildly agitated fanatics, sweat pouring from their bodies, foam flecking the lips of not a few. Louder and louder rose the voices; and when the sound had reached its fullest volume, its wildest crescendo, the voice of Takoo thundered out some words, and in the midst of all that tempest of sound it seemed he could be heard. His tones dominated the others as did his stature, and the wild look in his eyes, and the sweeping gestures he was now making with his arm. But the gaze of Robert and Rider was fixed on the unhappy girl who sat staring into the fire, hardly conscious of what was proceeding around her, pale in that leaping light, with lines of fatigue and terror stamped upon her face. She looked as though she it was who would be the sacrifice to be offered up that night.
Robert turned sick, clutched Rider’s arm. He whispered: “This is awful, Rider, it should be stopped. That girl will die of exposure if of nothing else; and it is all so vilely heathenish. I cannot look on any more.”
“You dare not interfere,” whispered Rider quickly. “It would spoil all that they are trying to do, and it is very real to them. If anything happened now through us, they would say that we had robbed Millicent of her one chance of life.”
“But this, this——!”
“Do you want to go?”
Robert did not answer, but fixed his eyes again on the scene before him. He found that he did not want to leave.
He saw Takoo plunge his right hand into the fold of his robe and withdraw it. His left hand he held over Millicent’s head; he seemed to be sprinkling her with some powder. More than once he repeated this movement, every member of that crowd, save only the young woman who still lay prostrate upon the ground, watching him with intent eyes. Again his voice rose in that thunderous chant, and at a signal from him the others ceased their singing and only he continued; he was a man born to command, his look showed that, and his imperious dominating voice. Such a man must have been Christophe, King of Haiti, the slave who rose to the governance of the north of Haiti, and who had died by his own hand but a few years before, when at last, stricken and helpless, he knew that the people he had ruled were marching against him with death in their hearts. But here Takoo could rule only by stealth and through fear of his supernatural gifts. And tonight he was calling upon his gods for personal aid, for succour; he was a suppliant and he knew that he might be striving against powers that were mightier than he.
He ceased. Silence fell again, intenser, more breathless than before. It was as though everyone held his breath. The moment of sacrifice had come.
With his left hand Takoo slowly took the kid from the boy, and the little creature bleated pitifully. He grasped it by the head, holding it over Millicent, while it kicked swiftly in a vain effort to free itself. From beneath his robe he had drawn a long, shining knife and this he waved in a sort of ritual for a moment or two. Then, with a swift movement, he thrust it into the animal’s throat.
The blood spurted in a hot stream upon the body of the girl and a hoarse cry burst from the people. Deftly the old man laved Millicent with the gushing blood, and now there was no rhythm in the sounds that came from the lips of that crowd, but fierce delirious howls and shouts, ejaculations of frenzy, a wild medley of cries. And Takoo was shouting too, at the full range of his sonorous voice he was charging the evil things that had taken possession of Millicent to leave her, to depart for ever, to be banished from her neighbourhood everlastingly. He had sacrificed, the victory was his, he proclaimed triumphantly; his power was greater than that of anyone who had brought his granddaughter to this state: the battle was won and the girl was free.
And then, startlingly incongruous at such a gathering, a new cry rose upon the air and was heard above the shouting. It came from the voices of a dozen people who had leapt to their feet, and the word cried aloud was “O Christ!”
For the first time since these people had assembled the name of Christ was uttered. It was shrieked out in an agony and spasm of fear. Men and women who had sprung upright were pointing in one direction with outstretched arms. Their motion attracted universal attention and from Robert’s lips also came that same exclamation—“O Christ!”
For there, about the spot whence Millicent and the witch-doctor had emerged into the light, stood the grotesque figure of a mighty, ill-shapen bull, twice the natural size of any creature that these people had ever seen, and about its neck hung a chain that glowed as though it were of fire, and its eyes were like balls of fire as they rolled menacingly in the hideous head. The brute pawed the ground slowly as it stared at the gibbering crowd, it was as though it were about to advance upon them. But they waited for no more. It all happened in a moment or two. Everyone was on his or her feet. Through the trees they all rushed, screaming; vainly Takoo, for a brief instant, sought to stay them; they did not heed him, did not even see or hear him; their one thought, their only impulse, was to flee to safety. And as they fled Robert heard the words, “Rolling Calf!” And still the monster stood there, though already it seemed to be vanishing.
Millicent had been lifted in Takoo’s arms as soon as the old man realised that there was nothing to be gained by waiting. Fear was in his face also, though affection and pride would have impelled him to front even that devil that glared at him with eyes of fire; but he knew he was powerless alone. Millicent had to be conveyed away; at this spot there was imminent danger. With the girl in his arms the old man disappeared among the trees. Then Rider and Robert saw that there was nothing whatever there: the huge bull had also gone.
“Great God! What is the meaning of this?” cried Robert, though even in his agitation he remembered to subdue his voice. “Rider, what does this mean? What was that devil? I could not have thought it possible; did these devil-worshippers bring it out of the Pit?”
Rider smiled, a grim and mirthless smile. “You heard what they said,” he whispered cautiously. “It was what they call a Rolling Calf, an evil spirit or devil that is supposed to take the form of a gigantic bull. Even to see it is dangerous. To be attacked by it is certain death.”
“We have been in touch with hell tonight,” said Robert bitterly; “it is all about us.”
“Hell is about us wherever we are,” rejoined Rider; “but don’t raise your voice. I believe that the chief devil is very close to us now.”
“That brute?” asked Robert quickly.
“No; that woman. The brute that we all saw, Robert, was, believe me, a figment of the imagination. It had no existence outside of the bad brain of the wickedest witch in this country. Don’t you understand? Ssh! I thought so!”
Rider grasped Robert’s arm to steady him. Into the now deserted space, where the fire still burnt brightly, stepped a slight figure clothed all in black and like a man. They knew it at once. There was no mistaking it.
Annie Palmer walked over to where Millicent had been sitting and looked down upon the dead body of the kid, which the crowd had been too startled to take away. Then she cast her eyes slowly round her, standing still for a minute, as though to listen for any sound that might indicate some watcher in the woods. She heard nothing. The men, holding their breath as they looked, saw her kick contemptuously the kid’s carcass that lay at her feet; then she laughed. The utmost contempt was expressed in that peal of laughter, contempt and a consciousness of triumph. She turned and went the way she had come.
“She rode here; she must have left her horse out yonder,” said Rider, when he judged that she had gone some distance. “You see, I was right. She conjured up that vision to frighten the people and to terrorise that poor girl still further. Poor Millicent! I think this is the end of her now.”
“Good God! Is she dead?”
“That I don’t know; but she must have seen that terrifying spectacle; everybody did. She knew it was not expected: so there could have been only one conclusion for her: it was sent to prove that she had not escaped, that everything her grandfather had done was so much time and effort wasted. Mrs. Palmer must have heard of this exorcism; she has probably been having Takoo watched. And she knew when to come here too; she must have waited until she felt sure that everybody was here who was to attend: then she rode over and took her own time to strike. She has perhaps killed Millicent just as though she had stuck a knife into her. But killing doesn’t come strange to her.”
“And she promised me to help!” exclaimed Robert.
“And deliberately broke her word. I always thought that possible. She suspected that, even if you had nothing more to do with Millicent, you would not remain with her. She was right there, too; but I also fancy she thought that if Millicent got better you would take up with her again. Annie doesn’t believe in anyone. So she has taken no chances; and now she will lie to you. That’s how the matter stands, to my thinking.”
“Rider, we must help Millicent.”
“If I could I would, gladly; but what are we to do?”
“I want to find out where they went tonight; if Takoo is convinced he has failed he may now be willing to try what a doctor can do. Psyche must find out where he is, and I am going to take this matter up with Annie. We have not failed yet.”
It had started to rain. Steadily the dark clouds overhead had gained in volume and depth; during the last half-hour the moon had shone but fitfully; then only pallid gleams had struggled through the veils of vapour; now the light had gone and every distant star was blotted out, and from the velvet black above came pattering down the heralds of the deluge to follow.
The rain fell slightly at first; a minute later it rushed earthwards in great splashing drops and buried everything around in pitchy, moving, almost palpable blackness. There was no seeing the path three feet ahead. But Rider knew the country, and so knew how to find himself about it at any hour of the night and day, though he had come this way but once before, and that but a couple of hours ago. They were drenched before they left the shelter of the wood; as they toiled over the hills on the other side of which lay Rosehall, they realised that they could not possibly get wetter than they were; but still they pressed on at as rapid a pace as the now slippery ground and the murk would allow, for they feared the chill and the paralysing fever which so often followed a wetting in these tropics. The walk was silent; they were too much occupied with the difficulties of their passage to attempt to talk; besides which, they would have had to shout in that roaring vertical torrent. Then, just as they reached the Rosehall boundary, the rain ceased as though it had been shut off by the turning of a faucet; ceased entirely; and the clouds, rapidly thinning, began to fade away into the ether; the blue sky shone bravely out once more, and the moon rode brilliant and bathed all heaven and earth with silver.
The transformation was complete, miraculously swift. Every object now stood out with distinctness, and wherever there was a declivity streams of water were rushing downward, muddy, brawling, while from the sea there swept landwards a delicious wind which, however, the sodden men could not appreciate since it struck coldness to their very bones and made them shiver. Robert plodded on, no longer now interested in phenomena which, at some other time, he would not have failed to admire. Then something that Rider murmured caught his ear and sent a thought through his brain.
“After light darkness, and after darkness light,” said Rider. “The light triumphs.”
“Yes, and it may be an omen, Rider,” commented the younger man. “It seems so to me!”
“One comes to believe in omens in countries like this,” Rider agreed. “We are always, consciously or otherwise, seeking for a sign.”
“It may be one,” insisted Robert, catching at any straw of hope and comfort.
“We part here,” said Rider; “your way is before you, and I had better hurry to my den and get out of these clothes. Don’t neglect to strip immediately you get inside and rub yourself down dry. Perhaps you had better swallow a mouthful of rum too; it will help to keep off fever. Rum is a medicine when you are not so used to it that it can do nothing but fuddle your wits.”
Rider added that he would be with Robert as early as possible in the morning and went his way. Robert hurried on to his room, followed the advice of his friend, and then flung himself on his bed.
Wide-eyed he went over the incidents of the night. Again and again he said to himself that, if Rider was right, if that monstrous creature with the eyes of fire that he had seen had been merely the effect of Annie Palmer’s will, then indeed she herself was a devil. And he was resolved to fight that devil. It was not only with an old superstitious African negro that Annie Palmer should have now to deal.