The White Witch of Rosehall
Preceded by Sam, Robert came to the book-keepers’ house, a low, unpainted wooden structure of three rooms, with a narrow veranda in front, situated near to the boiling-house of the estate from which issued pungent odours of steaming cane juice and continuous sounds of voices and movement. He entered the room indicated by Sam, and paused at his first step, revolted. A wooden bed unmade, with a mattress which had long since seen its best days, a couple of board-seated chairs, a small table, two bare shelves against the wall upon which had been placed the little odds and ends of the former occupant: that was all the furniture of this room. It was clear that he was not expected to have a large supply of personal possessions, for there was no space where these could conveniently be stored. Comfort in this cubicle was out of the question; quite obviously it was considered unnecessary to a book-keeper. He noticed a door leading into the middle apartment, opened it and stepped into the room. Here was a somewhat larger table, two or three empty boxes and a few more shelves. Nothing more. Sam stood slightly behind him. “And where does Mr. Burbridge live?” he asked.
“In dat room, massa.” Sam threw wide an opposite door which also opened upon the middle apartment. Robert had a glimpse of male garments hanging from a nail, and of a feminine article of apparel fluttering close beside them. This was not altogether a bachelor’s quarters, then; it seemed as though it were a ménage for two! But no married man could, with any wife of any sort of position and breeding, inhabit that one scantily furnished apartment, and half share the centre hall or whatever it might be called with a bachelor or another couple. “This may be interesting but is not enticing,” thought Rutherford; but he remembered he had made up his mind to make the best of every circumstance.
The door of the outside entrance to Burbridge’s den was suddenly flung open and Burbridge himself appeared; he walked over to where Robert was standing and said briefly to the waiting boy:
“Sam, go and call Psyche; she’s somewhere in the trash-house.”
Sam ducked his head and sped away; Burbridge seated himself on one of the empty boxes and motioned Robert to take the other.
“Mr. Ashman has just sent to tell me to put you to your job, Rutherford, till he can see about you himself,” said he, “so I took the chance to come and have a little chat with you. Well, how do you like it so far?”
“So far,” answered Robert judicially, “there has been nothing to like.”
“Don’t say that to anybody else but me if you want to keep your job; for when you lose one in this country it is hell to get another.”
“Is that why you stick here?” inquired Rutherford curiously.
Burbridge did not answer; instead, he himself asked a question: “When are you sending back the horse?”
“It is mine.”
“Yours! It’s a damned fine horse, that. You mean that you have bought it?”
“Then you won’t want the one they provide for you on this property?”
“Perhaps not; I can’t say. Two horses may not be too many.”
“Mr. Ashman is the man to decide that, Rutherford. But I am wondering——”
“About why a man who can dress like you, and have a horse of his own like yours, should come to Jamaica for a book-keeper’s job. It doesn’t look natural. You don’t mind my forwardness, do you? We have to work together and I am lonely as hell in this place, so I would like to start off being friends right away. When the two book-keepers on an estate are not friendly it is very hard for both of them.”
“I should very much like to be your friend, Burbridge,” cried Robert heartily. “And I’ll tell you at once that I am not exactly a pauper; I mean,” he corrected himself hastily, out of regard of the other man’s feelings, “I have some means and so can afford to buy a horse and any other little thing I may need.”
“Good for you,” commented Burbridge moodily. “I have nothing but my pay, like most book-keepers, and that is never enough. I have to stick wherever I get employment, for if you leave two or three jobs the overseers and attorneys come to think you are no good, and then you’re done for. You seem to be all right, so you don’t need to worry so much.”
“You are English, of course?” questioned Robert.
“Like yourself, yes; only, you are a gentleman.”
“Let us hope we are both gentlemen,” said Robert, but he had already noticed Burbridge’s broad accent; just as Burbridge had caught the tones of Robert’s cultured voice and observed his easy, independent manner.
“Can’t afford to be a gentleman,” said Burbridge with downright candour; “gentlemen book-keepers don’t last long here. I’ll get Psyche to look after your room till you get a housekeeper, Rutherford. Psyche is a good girl, but you will have to get your own, for she has a lot to do for me, besides doing her ordinary work in the trash-house.”
“She’s your servant?” But even as Robert asked the question he knew from something in Burbridge’s attitude and from his praise of Psyche that the girl, whoever she was, was something more than a servant to his colleague. His eyes lifted themselves automatically and again he spied opposite to him, hanging from a nail in the wall, that fluttering female garment.
“She’s my housekeeper and a very good girl. I think I hear her now.”
True enough, it was Psyche, a middle-sized, pleasant-looking damsel of about nineteen years of age, light chocolate in complexion, and therefore sambo, with bright black eyes and a merry smile. She wore a single robe that reached to the knees, but it was not coarse osnaburg such as Robert had seen on the women in the fields; it was of much better material and must, Robert concluded, have been purchased with Burbridge’s money. Her head was tastefully covered with a large scarf looking like a chequerboard of bright and diverse colours; her feet were bare. She had nothing of a slouching, timid demeanour; on the contrary, she flashed Robert a merry glance, bade him good day, then, touching Burbridge lightly on the shoulder, asked what he wanted.
“This is Mr. Rutherford, Psyche, the other book-keeper,” explained Burbridge. “He is going to live in the next room, like Mr. Fanbourg did, and I want you to fix it up for him till he gets somebody of his own to do it. It won’t be too much for you?”
“No,” grinned Psyche, looking Robert over with an appraising and appreciative glance. “An’ it won’t be long.”
“That’s so,” agreed Robert. “I suppose they allow a servant, don’t they?”
“Yes, you are allowed a servant to do the necessary things,” said Burbridge, “but not for all the time. She will have other work to do.”
“An’ dem all is tief,” said Psyche decisively. “Dem all rob you, except you is their sweetheart. But you will get a sweetheart, massa, specially as you is such a pretty gentleman. There is Millie, my cousin; she just twenty and she have good ways and is pretty. You want to know her?”
“No, no, Psyche,” laughed Robert with real enjoyment. (The eagerness of Burbridge’s lady to find for him a special helpmeet, and her unabashed frankness about it, affected his sense of humour keenly.) “I think it would be much more proper for me to select my lady-love myself: don’t you agree?”
“Yes,” agreed Psyche, “for, after all, what I t’ink may suit you you mightn’t like; you’ taste may be different. But Millie really a good-looking girl and can work, an’ she is a free girl, massa. I will bring her over to see you soon; dat will be no harm, for you needn’t teck her if you don’t like her. What you say?”
“Just as you please,” laughed Robert. “There can be no objection to the lady calling on me, if that is a custom of the country. And of course I shall like her, though that does not mean that I shall take her. And here is something for you, Psyche.” He handed the girl a dollar, at the same time glancing at Burbridge to see how he would regard this gift. He noticed that it was by no means resented by Burbridge. As for Psyche, she crowed with delight. Robert perceived that the advent of Millie was likely to be hastened.
“I live here,” said Psyche, pointing to Burbridge’s room, “an’ Millie could live dere,” and she pointed to Robert’s room; “an’ bote of us could keep dis place nice and convenient, and we could be happy an’ virtuous.”
Robert stared. Then remembered that virtuousness must mean to Psyche something quite different from what it signified to persons with a better knowledge of the English language, though not necessarily with a higher appreciation of the value of virtue. That Psyche was convinced that she was living a highly virtuous life he did not doubt for a moment. As for Burbridge, Robert realised that virtue meant nothing to him; he would have said that it could not possibly have any part in the life of a book-keeper—which was indeed the universal view.
“That’s all right, Psyche,” cut in Burbridge, speaking with real kindness and affection to the girl. “You need not go back to the trash-house till you have fixed up Mr. Rutherford’s room; but don’t be long or I will be blamed. We’d better be getting along now, Rutherford. You will see when your boxes come; we aren’t going far from here.”
“I wi’ bring Millie,” was the last word from Psyche; then the two men mounted their horses and went cantering off.
The sun was now high in the sky and beating fiercely down upon the countryside; the whole scene was lit up brilliantly by a hard yellow light, and the flashing blue of the sea to the north challenged the sapphire of the radiant overarching canopy that reached from the horizon to beyond the hills to the south, and spread away to east and west, forming, to the eye, an immense inverted bowl, painted in flaming colour. The sea-breeze had waxed in strength. Here and there stood groups of slender coconut palms, towering skyward, their long fronds waving wildly and clashing as they waved. Like sentinels on guard over the fields, huge cieba trees lifted giant branches into the air. The atmosphere was permeated with the smell of sugar in the making and of new rum; from far and near came cries of human voices and the lowing of cattle; overhead floated, with scarcely a movement, large black birds, the John Crows, a species of vulture which were then the only scavengers of town and country.
Burbridge was interested in all this not at all; he was thirty years of age and for eight of those years he had been a book-keeper in Jamaica. Nothing was strange to him, nothing new, and little was pleasant. With Robert it was different; his reaction to these tropic scenes, to this exotic life, was keen; it intrigued and thrilled him; to him this was a holiday, and what went on around him might have been staged for his amusement. He felt exhilarated as he rode by Burbridge’s side; in spite of the heat he enjoyed it all to the full. But even as he drew rein at the still-house, where the rum was made, there came to him a shock. He saw a stout black fellow lift a whip and bring it sharply down on the shoulders of a girl who was stooping to lift a bundle. The girl howled and crouched, but did not dare to move, for the whip hovered menacingly over her. Three or four women in the vicinity trembled violently, bent over their tasks with feverish intensity; the moment was one of tension. Then Robert remembered that he was a book-keeper, and, as such, the boss of the driver who seemed to be about, in a spirit of brutal enjoyment, to strike the girl again. “Stop that and go and attend to some other business!” he shouted to the man peremptorily. The fellow started to give some explanation; he was evidently astonished. The girl turned appealingly to her unexpected protector. Burbridge said nothing. The driver hesitated; yet he still held the whip above the young woman. Angered by his attitude, Robert rode up to him and kicked the whip out of his hand, the man uttering an exclamation of pain as he did so. Then Robert and Burbridge passed into the still-house.
“What was that brute lashing the girl for?” asked Robert.
“Some neglect of duty, perhaps,” replied Burbridge; “but I guess he was really taking it out of her for a private reason; possibly she wouldn’t have him and he is showing her what she might expect for her rejection.”
“But these people are not allowed to flog without express permission from white men, are they? I thought that in these days only the white men on the estate could give a flogging order.”
“Practice and theory are sometimes different,” answered Burbridge dryly, “and if you prevented these drivers from using the whip altogether you would soon have every slave raising the devil. There’s plenty of flogging on Rosehall, Rutherford—more perhaps than on any other estate.”
“Are the slaves here worse?”
“They are pretty bad.”
“But a lady lives on the property. Mrs. Palmer herself lives here, and she is a young woman, I have heard. Doesn’t she take a personal interest in things? What about her influence?”
Burbridge looked at Robert with a curious smile.
“You had better find out all that for yourself,” he said.