The White Witch of Rosehall
In the afternoon of that same day, at about five o’clock, Robert and Rider called at the house of a well-known doctor in Montego Bay and asked him to accompany them a little distance to see a girl who was dying of superstitious fear. It was not the same man whom Robert had previously asked to see Millicent. They explained the circumstances briefly, not mentioning Mrs. Palmer’s name. The girl, they said, believed she had been bewitched and was obviously in a dangerous condition. Did the doctor think he could help?
He was sceptical. He had come across such cases in his career, but he had never known much help derived from a regular practitioner. These people simply refused to eat, hardly slept; they were convinced that their death was approaching and it was almost impossible to rid their mind of the conviction. But he would go and see what could be done. That could do no harm.
So they went on to the house of Takoo’s daughter, entered the yard and saw a number of people standing about, as on the first occasion when Robert had visited the place.
It was dark by now, the early dusk of the December day had fallen and already lights were gleaming in the little house. But in spite of the obscurity the visitors observed that the people were hostile, for murmurs arose as they reined in their horses and dismounted, and no one seemed inclined to give them way.
Rider had been told of Robert’s intentions. He knew that his friend was about to do something that most men would have avoided. He did not believe it would be easy, if indeed possible, to bring home a charge of murder against Annie Palmer, and he reflected that the long wait would prevent Robert from returning home as early as he had hoped. He was going too, and he wished to go quickly; he did not wish to tarry in this country one day longer than was absolutely necessary. But Robert’s mind was made up, he was not to be argued with; he was in revolt against his weakness and vacillation of the last three weeks, he was moved to the depths, determined to do something that should redeem him in his own eyes. Rider understood all this. He acquiesced in what was said to him, even if he thought the plan rather futile.
He had been asked and had agreed to go with the young man to this place this evening, when Robert had learnt from Psyche that Millicent had again been taken there. He feared the worst.
And in Rider’s mind was a feeling that Annie Palmer, who had been told of Robert’s intentions, would not be idle in the meantime, could not afford to be. Rider felt that serious trouble was impending, trouble in which he would be a mere spectator. For beyond a very circumscribed limit he could not help at all. He had no power, no influence, no reputation even. And to warn Robert now would be worse than useless; Robert would proceed upon the path mapped out by himself in spite of all expostulation or argument.
The three white men ignored the hostile murmurings and attitude of the assembled negroes. The doctor took precedence, led the way to the door of the room which Robert indicated, rapped, and, on a woman coming to the entrance, mentioned who he was and asked if they would allow him to see the sick person.
The woman retired, returning in a few moments with Takoo. The old man, even in that obscurity, looked bowed and greatly aged. Gone was all the power and dignity with which he had seemed clothed the night before when, as the high priest of some mysterious cult, he had dominated a multitude of credulous fanatics. He now looked like an old, broken negro, with all the energy gone out of him. But at once he recognised who the gentlemen standing there were, and he quickly came out to meet them.
It was at Robert that he glanced, questioningly.
“I have brought a doctor to see your granddaughter,” said Robert kindly. “The last time, when the other doctor came, you had removed.”
“It’s no use, massa,” groaned the old man heavily, “Millie dying!”
“You had better let me see her,” said the doctor briskly; “quite possibly you are mistaken. Where is she?”
Takoo motioned to the door; the doctor passed in, leaving the rest of them standing.
Rider addressed old Takoo.
“Last night,” he began, “you tried to take off what you believe to be a ghost that is haunting Millicent—oh, yes, we know all about it: we were there though you did not see us.”
“You there!” exclaimed the old man. “Then you saw de spirit that——”
“We saw everything. And we want you and Millie to understand that it was nothing real; only something imagined . . . by someone else who caused you to see it. Can you follow me? That person first pictured the Bull in her mind and had power enough to make it appear to all of us also. But the thing itself wasn’t real; it was only a vision. Do you think we could get Millicent to understand that?”
“Understand what, massa? If a woman have power to make you see such a thing, what can you do against her? And it wasreal. Massa, Rolling Calf is real. And it appear just when I was taking off the sucking spirit from Millie, Mrs. Palmer’s spirit!”
Rider looked at the old man hopelessly, he spoke with such absolute certitude. Nothing could root out of his mind beliefs that were now a part of its texture. Rider made a despairing gesture.
Robert, however, resolved to see what his persuasion might effect.
“You know Mr. Rider and I would like to save Millicent, don’t you?” he asked Takoo.
“Yes, Squire, but you can’t. I fail; you must fail too. And now you will have to look after yourself.”
He said nothing more, nor did they; they could only await the doctor’s verdict. Presently the doctor issued from the room. He drew the white men slightly aside. “It is as I feared,” he said, “the girl is beyond all argument and beyond all treatment. She has had a terrible shock; her heart is failing. It was never strong, though she might have lived for years and years had nothing much occurred to distress her.”
The two men knew what this meant, yet the question came from Robert: “Is she dying?”
“I don’t think she will live through the night.”
Though Robert had been expecting to hear something of the sort the actual words came as though they were a blow. It seemed so horrible, this swift passing from life to death of a girl who but a few days ago seemed so free from danger and serious care. This was tragedy in one of its most awful forms, for behind it loomed the sinister figures of what anywhere would be considered as malignant and deadly witchcraft.
Takoo came up now. “I know what the doctor say,” he remarked; “he couldn’t say different. You want to take leave of me poor child before she go, massa?”
“Let me see her for a little while first, will you?” suddenly said Rider, before Robert could answer. “She is conscious now, I gather. I had better see her; I won’t be long.”
He spoke with quiet, authoritative insistence, as one who had a right to the interview he requested. He seemed to take it for granted that he would not be refused, for he waited for no answer.
He passed into the room. The other men, almost automatically, drew nearer to it. The people in the yard came nearer also, moved by curiosity.
They heard a murmur of voices within, Rider speaking and Millicent replying weakly, and then they heard Rider alone. They caught the words, “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death I will fear no evil, for Thou art with me”; they heard other words, they knew that this man, without a church, a drunkard, one even thought to care nothing for the religion in which he had been bred and of which he had been a confessor, was striving to bring some consolation to the last moments of an unhappy fellow-creature. He was the minister of souls once more, and perhaps never so sincerely before as now. This death-bed touched his heart, every sentiment of pity in him vibrated to the appeal of a scene than which he had known none more piteous. Here was a duty, sacred, solemn, and he knelt and offered up his prayers with a sincerity of which there could be no doubt. He alone, at this moment, might soothe the tortured spirit that was so soon to leave this world.
The waiting, angry crowd heard and were impressed. An influence superior to their own surly, snarling temper dominated them. There were women there who, the night before, had swayed and writhed their bodies to the compulsion of a weird, heathen rhythm; now some of them sank upon their knees and sobbed softly, murmuring the name of Jesus. And men stood with bowed heads and respectful demeanour, who last night had looked with bloodshot eyes at the slaughter and sacrifice of an animal to some but half-apprehended evil deity. It was a strange spectacle, for all that crowd was silently praying in unison with the voice inside the room, and overhead the stars came out and pricked with light the enveloping darkness, and the wind sighed through the trees. Then the voice ceased, and after a couple of minutes Rider issued forth, a strange, sad look upon his face, and beckoned to Robert.
The young man stepped into the room, where only one woman stood beside the bed on which lay Millicent. He went quietly to the bedside and touched her hand lightly; she looked up at him and smiled.
“I know you would come,” she said faintly.
He found no words to reply, could not trust himself to speak.
“Take care of yourself,” she whispered again; “take care, Squire. You promise?”
He bowed his head and patted her arm, and there was silence for a little while.
When at length he bent over she appeared to be sleeping; her strength had given out. He turned and tiptoed out of the room.
There was nothing more to do, nothing to stay for. The doctor was anxious to be gone. Robert knew that for the last time he had seen Millicent’s face, had taken final farewell of a victim of strange and atrocious superstitions. He mounted his horse and, with his two companions, turned to go.
Takoo came up to him. “I will never fo’get all this, Squire,” he said, “whatever happen.”
Without a word the white men rode off, and in Montego Bay the doctor left them, regretting that he had been of no slightest use. He parted respectfully from Rider, too, who, on the way to Takoo’s place, he had hardly noticed, knowing much about him as a man who had fallen below the esteem of all his class. The two friends went on, their destination Rosehall; tomorrow Robert would inform Ashman that, no matter what the consequences, he would not be back at his work on Wednesday. He briefly told Rider of his resolve and Rider said that he too would endeavour to leave, especially since it was only too probable that on that day the slaves would remain idle, and it might even be that the white people on the estates would be forced to flee into Montego Bay. “The rumours are coming thick and fast now,” he added, but did not interest his companion.
Early on the following morning news came by special bearer to Psyche. Millicent had died in her sleep during the night.