The White Witch of Rosehall
On the veranda of the book-keepers’ quarters Robert found Burbridge up and ready to go off to the Great House. Psyche was awake and crying, through sheer excitement and fright. Some of the boys of the estate were standing about, realising that a terrible thing had happened and not knowing what to do.
“Where is Rider?” asked Robert, and was told that Rider was in his room.
He threw the door open and saw the ex-parson with a bottle half-filled with rum on a table beside him. Rider was sitting down, one arm resting on the table, the other within reach of a glass in which a dark red liquor gleamed. He must have consumed already at least half a pint of rum. And he had not finished drinking yet.
But he was not drunk. It took more than the amount of liquor he had swallowed to make poor Rider drunk. He seemed on his way to drunkenness, however; he had yielded to his old temptation: previous abstinence, unwonted excitement, and then the culminating horrors of that night had been too much for his nerves and resolution.
“Couldn’t keep away any longer, Rutherford,” he muttered. “I should have gone mad if I hadn’t had a drink.”
Robert nodded his head in comprehension, and reached out for a glass himself. He too felt a sudden craving for a stimulant of some kind.
Burbridge came to the door. “I suppose I shall be up there till morning,” he said, “and so I may not see you before you leave, Rutherford. But perhaps you won’t go as you intended?”
“There is no need for me to stay,” answered Robert, with a gesture of distaste. “I won’t even wait until morning. Ashman says he does not want me, so I am going tonight.”
“A few hours would make no difference; it may be dangerous on the road tonight. I believe the slaves are out everywhere; a rebellion has begun.”
“I’ll take the risk, Burbridge. Especially as Ashman says he does not need my assistance here.”
Robert considered a moment. Then: “As things are, can’t Rider come with me?” he added.
“That’s not for me to say,” Burbridge replied. Everything is different now that Mrs. Palmer is dead, and I don’t suppose Ashman would mind if Rider went with you—I don’t know. But Rider himself must decide.”
“You had better come, Rider,” urged Robert, “and leave all this.” He indicated the rapidly emptying rum bottle.
“I couldn’t now,” Rider protested. “I must steady myself first. I feel—God alone knows how I feel. Besides, I haven’t a horse like you.”
“Burbridge could lend you one.”
“I daren’t,” said Burbridge.
“Very well; I’ll go on to the Bay tonight on foot,” said Robert decisively; “it is only ten miles away and the night is cool. Rider can use my horse.”
“Couldn’t hear of such a thing, old man,” protested Rider a trifle thickly. “I will walk it over myself tomorrow, if I am in a fit condition.”
“You couldn’t walk,” said Robert sadly, “I’ll tell you what I’ll do. I’ll leave my grey for you, and you can ride her over. The walk will do me good. Start early, Rider; get away from here as soon as you can. Do try and meet me in the morning.”
Rider rose, looking very pale and limp in the feeble light that burnt in a tin lamp on the table. “I’ll meet you tomorrow, old fellow, alive or dead. You have been a good friend to me; the best I have had. God bless you.”
He grasped Robert warmly by the hand, and Burbridge also clasped the young man’s hand with a sympathetic pressure. Burbridge did not pretend to be upset by Annie’s fate; it left him unmoved. But he knew that Robert could hardly feel about her as he did, in spite of all, he had been her lover. And he had witnessed her awful end.
In this way Robert Rutherford took leave of Rosehall, where, in some three weeks, he had passed through experiences that most men’s lives did not compass in a generation. He was glad of the movement, the activity, which this long trudge to the Bay compelled him to; he gave but little thought to the possible dangers of the road, though he knew that the slaves were out. But as he went on he saw broad sheets of fire grow against the hills to the south, and beyond them the sky was illuminated here and there by a pale glare for which there was but one explanation. On many of the estates the revolting slaves were giving the cane-fields to the flames.
Montego Bay was vastly agitated. The uprising of the slaves had come at last, but most persons were surprised at it, though the portents had been plain for anyone to see. The militia was mustering; the fort at the land entrance to the town, which commanded the highway that led by the northern shore to the capital, was put in a better state of readiness than it had been, for it was thought that the rebels might march on Montego Bay itself, though sagacious persons knew that this would be utterly unlike the tactics of the slaves. Robert had reached the town while still it was dark and before it had awakened to the gravity of the situation. He had gone to a small lodging-house, where he had slept upon a sofa. It was now nine o’clock, and he was waiting for Rider. He himself had met with no interference on his walk. Indeed, he had passed no one on that long tramp to Montego Bay.
It was about ten o’clock when a rumour took its way to him. Something had happened; a white man had been brought in, dead it was believed, by a party of white people who, with slaves that had remained faithful to them, had fled by the northern shore road that morning into Montego Bay. More out of curiosity than from any other cause, for by this he had concluded that Rider had been too drunk to leave Rosehall estate as he had planned, Robert went over to where the body of this white man was laid out. Before he got into the house he knew the truth.
The party coming along the road, some time after daybreak, had found the corpse lying in the way, a bullet hole through the heart. Farther on they had come upon a grey horse, riderless, evidently connected with the dead man; they had caught the reins and brought in the horse, using it as a means of conveying its erstwhile rider. The man must have been shot dead immediately, said the doctor who had been summoned; he was one of the first victims of the war that had begun. There was nothing to do about it. No one knew who his slayer was. No one would ever know.
They buried Rider that afternoon. The rector officiated, and Robert was the chief, perhaps the only mourner. He felt as though life had grown more sombre with this taking off of a man who had been the enemy of no one except himself, who had been kindly, cultured, understanding, but had become a slave to circumstances and a derelict in a land where human life and happiness were held so cheap. Robert wished bitterly that he had waited until dawn before leaving Rosehall, for then Rider and himself might have made the exodus together, and, he said to himself, Rider would in all probability have escaped. That was true. What he never guessed was that the bullet which struck Rider down had been intended for him and would have been fired.
But when Ashman, Burbridge and the two Scotsmen came post haste into Montego Bay that evening, after having fought against a revolt on Rosehall and been compelled to witness the burning of the fields, Ashman knew just how Rider had come by his death. On parting from Robert Rutherford the night before, when Annie Palmer lay a corpse in the upper story of the Great House, Ashman had forgotten the plot he had helped prepare against the young man. Not that Robert’s death would have mattered anything to him, but he had nothing to gain by it after Annie was gone and would not have wished it to happen then. As it was, it was Rider who had become the victim. And Ashman had always had a sort of regard for Rider.
Well, he was finished with now, and there were other things to do.
Ashman had buried Annie Palmer in the morning at Rosehall: some slaves had been compelled to dig her grave, on a lonely spot on the estate, under the pointed rifles of the white men. She had had fairly decent burial. And that afternoon the bondsmen had risen and applied the torch to the luscious reeds, rich with juice, which burnt so readily.
The call now was for men to put down the rebellion. Robert offered his services, Ashman went with his men into the mountains to fight the rebels; troops poured in from Spanish Town, the island’s capital and seat of government; in a few weeks it was all over. In a tavern in Montego Bay Robert heard Ashman talking one evening. They had nodded to one another, but had shown no inclination for further intercourse. Perhaps, however, what Ashman said he intended particularly for Robert’s ears.
He was relating some of his experiences during the recent tracking down of the revolted slaves. “I knew Takoo at sight, and I dodged about the trees to come near to him. He knew I was trying to get at him, too, and he was trying for me. But I shot the old devil, and I am glad it was my hand that did it. I would have preferred, though, to have strangled him exactly as he strangled Mrs. Palmer. I would have choked the life out of him slowly, the old black dog! He’s got off far too easily.”
So that was Takoo’s end.
Only Mr. M’Intyre, the rector, was at the waterfront to say good-bye to Robert when, in the February of that year, he took his seat in the boat which was to bear him out into the stream to the ship whose destination was England.
“Do you think you will ever come back to the West Indies?” asked the old parson, by way of saying something.
“Never,” was the reply.