The White Witch of Rosehall
“So you want to leave Rosehall?” said Mr. Ashman; “When do you plan to go?”
“Tomorrow morning,” returned Robert.
“Very well; you can go. You haven’t been of very much use here at best. I will send you what wages are due to you a little later.”
“The wages you can keep; your impertinent remarks you had better keep to yourself also, or you will be sorry for them.”
“Hell! Sorry, I?” Ashman exploded. “But I am not going to quarrel with you, young man; you’re not worth it. Well, sir, what are you waiting for?” This to Rider.
“I should like to leave, too, Mr. Ashman, tomorrow morning.”
“You have not my permission, Mr. Rider. This estate will be short-handed and you must remain for a little while yet. But you can go at the end of the week, if you like,” he added contemptuously. “I suppose you want to follow your friend.”
“That has nothing to do with the matter,” said Rider with some dignity. “You must know by this, that the slaves are not likely to come out to work tomorrow, so there will be no use for me here.”
“If you were a man, there would be. We may want four or five white men here to keep the people in order in case they begin to attempt any foolishness, but I suppose you wouldn’t be any use for that. But you can’t leave in the morning unless you want to be prosecuted. I’ll tell you what, though,” he said, as a thought seemed to strike him, “I’ll let you go during the day sometime, if nothing happens here. Rutherford can leave as early as he wants to, and the sooner the better. I want his room fixed up. Next time I take good care that we don’t employ fal-de-la young men and deserters on this estate.”
The two men walked away without answering, and Ashman looked after them with a scowl. So Mr. Rutherford would be leaving early the next morning, before daybreak probably, to have a cool ride into Montego Bay. He was done with the estate. He wished to be soon in the town to begin his criminal prosecution, or accusation, or whatever he might choose to call it: he would waste no time. But perhaps he would never reach Montego Bay.
No; it would never have done to let Rider go along with him, though the sooner Mr. Rider was off the premises the better. He had kept too sober. He too might be inclined to make trouble.
The day wore on. Psyche had received permission from Burbridge to go to her cousin’s funeral, which was to be that afternoon, and she had set off betimes to trudge the twelve miles of distance she had to cover. Burbridge joined his friends at lunch-time, but no one had much of a lunch. Burbridge had been informed by a book-keeper on the neighbouring estate that there would be difficulty with the people next day. He had cleaned and oiled his gun. He knew that Ashman and the two Scotsmen would also be prepared. Rider and Rutherford were leaving.
But four white men, who could depend upon two or three black headmen (who would also be armed) should be enough to put down any ordinary demonstration. If anything more serious threatened, the white people would be compelled to withdraw to the town and leave matters to the militia.
They had little to say to one another today. Burbridge knew better than to dwell on the death of the girl, Rider avoided the topic with a natural sensitiveness, Robert did not mention it. What now filled his mind, occupied his thoughts to the exclusion of almost anything else, was the duty before him, the duty of bringing to justice the most dangerous woman in all the West Indies, a woman who might be insane but who in any age and country would be accounted a criminal. He tried to think of the matter impersonally. He spoke to himself about justice, not vengeance. But the memory of a wan face and faint voice, a voice whose last words were an appeal to him to take care of himself, was uppermost in his mind. He was thinking less of pure justice than he desired to believe.
The night came dark and squally, though there was no rain; and by seven the darkness was dense. He could not sleep, he was restless, the minutes seemed long, and it would be hours before morning came. Rider, he had noticed vaguely, was very restless, too; he attributed this to the emotional disturbances they had both experienced yesterday, and to the approaching end of their connection with this accursed place. He was right as to his belief that Rider had passed through what was, for him, an exhausting spiritual phase of emotion; his whole past had, as it were, come back to him, with his sudden assumption of sacerdotal office and authority; he had been profoundly shaken; his whole being had been disturbed. And now, suddenly, as it usually did, the craving for drink had come upon him, his body felt dry, burnt out; there was a feverish thirst in every fibre of it. Yet he resisted it as he had not done for years. In spite of the craving he had not touched a drop of rum that day. But it shook and tortured him, and he hoped and prayed that his resolution would last until he could be back in the town and preparing for his departure from the country. Rider felt that if he left Rosehall and had something to occupy his mind amid different surroundings, with a new future beckoning to him, he might be able successfully to withstand the terrible temptation.
At about ten o’clock he came to Robert, coming on foot, and found the young man seated on the veranda. Burbridge was in his own room.
“I walked over; I couldn’t sleep,” he explained “I thought you wouldn’t be sleeping either.”
“No. And I marked the drums particularly tonight. There are more of them than I have ever heard before, and they are not all for dancing, I imagine. Do you notice how they seem to come from every quarter?”
He paused, while the air seemed to throb with the sound of the drumming, some of it very faint and far away, travelling for miles through the atmosphere, which at that moment was still.
Mechanically Robert listened to the staccato beats, the low rumblings, that sounded through the surrounding darkness.
“Some are drums of the dance, and some of religious ceremonies, perhaps; but some, I fancy, are war drums,” said Rider. “There are big palavers tonight.”
“Shall we take a walk?” suggested Robert. “We both don’t want to sleep. Let us wander about a bit.”
This suggestion fitted in with Rider’s restless mood as well as with Robert’s. The latter clapped on his hat and they started out.
They had no particular objective, and unless they wished to entangle themselves in the cane-fields they must either go north towards the main road and the sea, or south towards the hills. The path southward was that which led to the Great House, which was in darkness, a thicker black in the midst of the blackness of the night. They could not be seen if they came near to it and skirted it; so they turned their steps in that direction.
Robert felt impelled by a necessity for audible self-criticism. “I have made a nice hash of my life in Jamaica, Rider,” he said, as they went on.
“Most of us do,” replied the other man grimly: “I think I have said that before. But you appear to have done so much less than most others. You have caught yourself up in time.”
“Circumstances have stopped me. I did not know myself. I had all sorts of high hopes and resolutions. I was going to learn a lot while enjoying myself; I was going to have a fine time and yet become a competent planter. I was going to make my old man proud of me; show my strength and determination, and all that. But I hadn’t been here a day before I was making love to a woman I knew nothing about, and I hadn’t been here a week before I was philandering with one of the native girls, and drinking lots of Jamaica rum, and neglecting my work, and beginning to ruin my constitution. And now one woman hates me like poison and threatens me, and the other is dead, through me. A lovely record in less than a month!”
Rider made no comment.
“I suppose,” continued Robert bitterly, “I am only a rash, impulsive fool, after all, not the paragon I imagined myself to be.”
“You are not more rash or impulsive than most other people, I fancy,” said Rider soothingly. “Nine out of every ten young men from the Old Country fall by the way in Jamaica if they begin low down. That was your mistake, and yet the idea behind it was excellent. Well, there is nothing to be gained now by dwelling on mistakes; you had better let the dead past bury its dead. You are a young man and your future is still in the making.”
“It will certainly have to be much different from the present.”
“In a way,” said Rider, wishing to stop Robert from too much self-accusation, “you have even been more unfortunate than the majority of men who have come out to Jamaica. You fell in immediately with a sort of Lucrezia Borgia. Annie Palmer has lived out of her time; she should have been born in the fourteenth or fifteenth century; with her will and ability she, woman though she is, might have made a great name for herself, and her iniquities might have counted as venial offences even if husband-killing were included among them. But here she was, and you met her, and she fascinated and encouraged you, made open love to you. I wonder how many young men could have resisted that temptation. I can’t think of one.”
“And even now,” said Robert suddenly, “I feel sorry for her. Terribly sorry. I have made up my mind what to do, for she is dangerous and will always be so. But it is not pleasant to think that I, who loved her—and she has said she loves me, too—should be the one to accuse her. The more I think of it, the more the thought harasses me. I have felt more than once today as if I were about to be a betrayer: a man who has eaten a woman’s bread and salt and then goes about to hand her over to—it may be death.”
“I had a feeling that you would be thinking something of the sort,” said Rider, a trifle dryly. “Don’t you think you might take a week or so to consider calmly your steps? Nothing is to be lost by that.”
Robert shook his head resolutely. “The blood of a murdered woman cries out of the ground for justice,” he said.
“The quotation is not quite correct, but I might cap it with another: ‘Vengeance is mine, saith the Lord, I will repay.’ ”
“Would you have me let her go free, to do what she wills with other people?” cried Robert.
“I would have you do nothing you do not wish to do, my friend. You yourself are having your doubts now as to the best course to follow, and I should be sorry if you did anything now, however right it might seem, or be, with which you should reproach yourself later on. I cannot advise you, but you yourself have said that you both have been lovers.”
“I wonder,” said Robert, as though he were thinking aloud, “if she is quite sane?”
“Pride, and the life she has led, and the power she has had over her slaves, may have unhinged her brain,” Rider commented; “that is quite possible. Inordinate vanity and fierce passions, in surroundings like these, may have unbalanced her, or insanity may be her heritage. Or traffic with evil things in Haiti may have affected her brain. We cannot know. Perhaps it is only charitable to think so.”
“But what a splendid asylum for a mad woman?” exclaimed Robert, looking up, for they had come within less than a stone’s throw of Annie Palmer’s home.
It was all in darkness. Its façade towered above them as they halted on the upward slope to gaze upon it; it stood out dark against the pitchy background of the night, with all its blatant assertion of opulence and power. It had been built to set forth the riches and pride of its first possessor; money had been lavished upon it, not merely for comfort, but by way of emphasis. Even to a headstrong and proud plantocracy it was intended as a sort of challenge from one of its members who wished to be considered as the first among his peers. And now it housed one woman only, and she shunned by her class and shunning them, more self-assertive than had been any of her predecessors, and one who had carried her love for power and domination to lengths of which they had never dared to dream.
Instinctively they walked soft-footed. They had no wish to draw attention to themselves, though as the mistress must have been sleeping then, and the servants had probably retired, there was no danger of their being seen or heard. The wind, too, was blowing fitfully, and the night was black. Heavy clouds drifted across the sky. Ordinary sounds would not penetrate into the Great House at that hour, nor could casual eyes observe them.
They turned quietly to their right, following a path which would lead them to the rear of the property, towards which they planned to walk until they were tired. Pursuing this course they would pass the servants’ quarters and the kitchen at the left wing of the house. They had ceased to talk; in a minute or two they found themselves on a gentle slope which they proposed to climb, and on their left hand, some seven feet above the level of the ground on which they stood, rose the paved platform (up to which some steps led) which formed part of the back veranda of the main building.
Here too everything was in darkness.
But it seemed to them both that the darkness was moving, or rather that something moved in it. It was not curiosity alone that caused them to halt as though one man, and peer fixedly through the gloom towards that raised stone platform. There was some suggestion there of presences, something like whispers floated on the air; as their eyes became more accustomed to the scene at which they stared they perceived without any doubt that figures were outlined dimly there, human figures, and even while they stood with muscles tensed and all sorts of surmises in their minds the shadowy figures seemed to dissolve or fade away and then they vanished entirely.
Robert clutched Rider by the arm. “What on earth can that mean?” he whispered, having in mind the malign apparition he had seen on Christmas Night in the woods that led to Palmyra.
“They look like human beings, and they have gone into the Great House,” whispered Rider in reply. “My God what can that mean?”
A scream, sharp, piercing, agonised, stabbed through the sombre air, then ceased abruptly as though smothered. A light broke out in the room which Robert knew to be Annie’s, a light shining dimly through the glass panes of the closed windows.
“It is her voice,” exclaimed Robert, “and, and——”
“Come!” commanded Rider. “Those men were slaves. I understand now.”
They leapt up the steps that led to the platform; then, Robert now leading the way, ran to the little sloping structure which he had noticed on the night when Annie had shown him over the house. The opening which that contrivance covered formed the back ingress to the cellars of the house: a short flight of brick steps, a vaulted passage, brought you into the cellars, which were paved with rubble. But Robert knew also that, to the left, was a little door, usually locked, which led by a sort of ladder, or narrow wooden steps, to the hall above in which began the grand stairway which was the pride of Rosehall. Anyone who negotiated that cellar door would be able to gain the topmost story without any difficulty whatever.
He led Rider, for he knew the way. Down the outer steps, then through the low vaulted passage they went as rapidly as the thick blackness would allow; they reached the small door in the cellar—it was open! Evidently the key had been purloined from Annie, in whose possession it usually was. In a few seconds the friends reached the hall above, were leaping up the stairway, had gained the upper story. There they found that they had hurled themselves into the midst of a number of men who, surprised at their sudden and unexpected appearance, and frightened desperately by it, made no effort to hold them back as they rushed through an open door into Annie’s room.
Her candelabrum was lighted. It dimly showed a group of blacks some armed with machetes, with wild rolling eyes and menacing demeanour; it showed a slim, white figure clothed in a night-robe, grasped by two powerful men, one of whom had his broad hand placed firmly over her mouth. Her eyes were aglare with terror, for the man whose hand had stifled her screams was Takoo. And in Takoo’s face was the unpitying exultation of a savage.
Before they could reach her Robert and Rider found their path barred by some six men, four of whom seized them, while the two others lifted their machetes as though to cut them down. The men outside had now rushed in, ready to give assistance: they had grasped the fact that these were the only two white men attempting a rescue. Robert, with his immense strength, and in his sudden fury, was equal to any two of his captors, but there were many to grasp and overpower him. Rider was like a child in the hands of one man. A smell of rum pervaded the room. Evidently these people had been supplied with drink before being brought by Takoo on their murderous enterprise.
The old witch-doctor shouted to his followers an order that they were not to harm the two white men. But he added immediately, “Don’t allow them to make any noise.” Rider began to speak immediately, in a quiet voice, for he did not wish his words to be smothered. Robert desisted from his efforts to break loose, efforts which were useless and which would only have prevented Rider from being heard.
“Think of what you are doing, Takoo,” implored Rider. “If you harm Mrs. Palmer you will get yourself into serious trouble, you and your men. Do you want to be hanged?”
“Who deserve hanging most?” Takoo volleyed back to him; “me or she? She kill Millicent, an’ you know it. Who will punish her if I don’t? I pass sentence on her tonight over the grave of me dead gran’daughter,” he continued passionately. “I sentence her to death, as chief an’ leader of the people in St. James. You talk about me an’ dese men being hanged, Mr. Rider? It is the white men who have to look for themself now, for we are all free from tonight—every slave in Jamaica is free—and we taking to the mountains to fight until the damn slave-owners here acknowledge our freedom. It come from England an’ they keeping it back. Very well, we will take it ourself, even if some of us have to die for it. I expec’ to die, but dese men with me will live free for ever. And before I die dis woman will; she will go before me. No power from hell or heaven can save her!”
“But man, she is a woman, and you are all strong men. Surely you have some mercy in your hearts?” panted Robert.
Annie looked at him with eyes in which gratitude and a wild appeal for aid were mingled. From him help must come if from any source that night. She trusted to him only.
That he himself had intended to report her to the authorities of Montego Bay as a murderess was forgotten by both of them. There seemed nothing incongruous in this effort of his to save her, in this mute supplication of hers to him. It revolted him to see her in the rude grasp of these slaves, handled brutally by people who, a few hours ago, would not have dared to look her impudently in the face. She was a white woman, she was Rosehall’s mistress, she was beautiful, she was of his own race and a member of the ruling, dominant class. For these men to terrorise her, to dare to threaten her with death, was soul-sickening, revolting, incredible. It had to be prevented! They should not murder her while he had strength sufficient to fight against them. What she was did not matter now. Outraged pride of race animated him; he was a white man struggling for the life of a white woman. And he felt, vaguely, wildly, that he loved her still. If needs be he was prepared to give his life for hers.
Rider, even at that moment, realised that Robert was acting in defiance of his resolution to bring Annie Palmer to justice if that could be done. And Rider knew that if Annie were saved that night Robert would never utter a word against her to anyone who could track her to her doom.
And what Robert burningly raged against—the indignity, the enormity, of this besetting of a white woman by her slaves, this impending hideous execution or murder of her by them, Rider also felt to the full. The very idea was monstrous, atrocious. It mattered nothing what she had done, it was not for these men rudely to handle her and slay her. It was the duty of every white man on the estate to stand by her in this deadly hour of peril. Alas, the others were out of hearing. And they two were matched against twenty.
“Mercy?” repeated Takoo, almost mechanically, in answer to Robert’s cry. “She didn’t have no mercy on anybody, Squire.”
Robert stiffened himself for the fight he perceived to be inevitable, but Rider stayed him with a look.
Rider recognised that further pleading would be in vain. Yet something must be done. An idea flashed into his mind.
“Remember,” he said impressively to Takoo, “this lady has command over powers and spirits that are greater than you. Touch her, injure her, and your life will be miserable for ever: yours, and the life of every man here, both now and hereafter. Do you realise what you are risking, Takoo?”
Even as he spoke he tried to convey his inner meaning to Annie Palmer. His eyes were fixed on hers, trying to telegraph his message to her brain. And she grasped it. He saw a responsive flash of comprehension pass over her face, and her gaze became fixed. If only she could conjure up, at this moment, in this apartment, some nebulous image that these people had pictured and talked about again and again, believing firmly in its malign death-dealing influence, she was safe. They would fly howling from the room. Even Takoo’s nerves might not be proof against such a terrible test; and if he should stand his ground, Robert alone would be more than a match for him.
But Rider had conveyed his idea to another mind also. Takoo saw his men start, observed that on the instant they were apprehensive, half drunk though he had made them. Sober, they never would have faced Mrs. Palmer, even with him as leader; even now the warning of Rider had struck a chill through them and dread was already beginning to master them. Takoo glanced at the woman whose mouth he still covered with his palm. He saw her gaze grow steady, staring, as if she were concentrating her mind and will upon one overwhelming purpose. She was calling her spirits to her aid. In another minute she might defeat him. Suddenly he shifted his hand from her face to her throat: a half-stifled scream, and the old savage was throttling her with all the strength of his hardened muscles.
A thunderous curse from Robert, a cry of protest from Rider, but the slaves held them fast. Robert went down amongst a heap of them; Rider soon gave over the impotent struggle, exhausted. It was over in a very little while. The woman’s eyes protruded horribly from the sockets, her tongue hung out limply. The contortions of her body subsided into a spasmodic twitching, then the corpse rested heavy and inert. Annie had died as one of her husbands had, in the same way and by the same hand.
For a moment or two there was silence, the silence of a horrible tragedy. Then:
“We could kill both of you, Squire, if we want,” Takoo said. “But both of you are kind. We may have to fight you tomorrow, but for Millie’s sake you can go tonight.” He turned to his men. “Let us throw this woman’s body through the window, like them throw Jezebel of old, for she was another Jezebel.”
“Takoo,” broke in Rider, “for God’s sake don’t do that. She is dead. Leave her alone now.”
“Very well, Squire. Come, we going to the hills.” He spoke to his men and they went out with him, leaving the white men behind.
The sound of their footsteps died away. The corpse, half flung on the bed, looked so pitiful, and withal so awful, that Rider threw a sheet over it. “What an end,” he muttered to himself.
With his face buried in his hands, Robert was sobbing.
“We must rouse Ashman and the others, Rutherford,” said Rider. “Let us go down.”
They went down by the way they had come, and now they found the yard in a state of excitement and agitation. The house servants were up and chattering volubly. What had occurred? What was amiss? Why had Takoo forced them to stay in their rooms, with two or three men armed with machetes to compel their obedience? Where was the missis? The white men vouchsafed no reply; but Rider noticed that an elderly black woman, the chief of the servants, said very little, and guessed that she knew all. Even in the Great House Takoo had had his followers. Annie had watched others, or had had them watched, and had sought to terrify them. And all this time she had herself been watched, and her movements had been faithfully reported to the terrible obeahman, and efforts to terrify her had been made. If they had failed it was because of her superior mentality and her contempt for the poor, futile tricks that illiterate slaves had tried to play upon her. Of one thing she had never dreamed—a direct assault upon her. It was that which had taken her unawares, with such sinister and tragic consequences.
“Both of us cannot leave here at the same time,” said Robert; “will you go to Ashman?”
Rider nodded and set off. Robert remained behind, not permitting any of the slaves to enter the house.
“This is the work of you and your kind,” he muttered. “There must be no further insults for her.”
One or two of the younger women began to whimper. Fear gripped them, and they cowered in the presence of such an overwhelming occurrence as they would in the midst of a hurricane.
In a short space of time new-comers were on the scene. Ashman and the two Scotsmen had not waited for their horses, but on hearing from Rider of the tragedy at the Great House had rushed thither on foot. All three men carried guns. The crisis was on at last, and they came prepared.
Followed by Robert and the others, Ashman strode up to the room where Annie’s body lay; he drew back the sheet and gazed dumbly at the staring eyes and protruding tongue as though unable to credit the testimony of his sight. Then he stopped and lifted the corpse, and pressed his fingers on the eyelids in an effort to close them: failing, he covered up the face, walked to a window, threw it open, and in a harsh voice, menacing with suppressed feeling, he ordered some of the women below to come up.
He was a man of action; he knew what had to be done. He gave sharp orders to the women; the mistress would be buried in the morning; it would be impossible to delay her burial longer. “And, by God,” he said, “if I find one man or woman disobeying what I say, in the slightest degree, I will shoot on the spot and shoot to kill. This is a rebellion, is it? Well, you will all learn how I deal with rebellion.”
They left the room, with the women in it already going about their allotted duty.
“I will stay here during the night,” said Ashman, “and these gentlemen with me”; he indicated the master mechanic and artisan. “Those beasts may return to set fire to the house; if they do——” he broke off significantly. He was clearly not afraid of that crowd. “What will you do?” he asked Robert, to whom, now, he showed no animosity.
“I am going,” said Robert, “I have had enough of it. Unless you want my services? I don’t think Takoo will come back, but if you think he will I can stay.”
“You needn’t, Mr. Rutherford. Your friend Rider has not come back; he seems to be badly upset. But you had better send Burbridge to me. I can deal with this situation.”
Robert, for the first and last time in his life, held out his hand to Ashman, who took it without hesitation. Ashman was seated in a chair placed in the back entrance hall whence the grand stairway led upwards. As Robert passed through the rear doors, knowing he would never enter them again, he saw Ashman’s head lowered on his chest.
Ashman was mourning for Annie Palmer.