The White Witch of Rosehall
In twenty-four hours Robert Rutherford had learnt a great deal. As he sat on his horse the morning after he entered upon his duties at Rosehall, watching a scene which he knew would shortly develop in a fashion revolting to his feelings, he concluded that a mere description of the position of a book-keeper, however detailed, could never have brought home to his mind the nature of that employment as his brief personal experience of it had done.
Robert was a man in splendid condition; but even he already felt horrified at the tax put upon an unfortunate book-keeper during crop time on a sugar estate. Yesterday he had picked up the rudiments of his work and had discovered that he would not have a single book to keep (all that sort of thing being done by the overseer), but that he was expected, after a day in the field, or in the boiling-house watching the sugar made, to spend every other night in the still-house where was kept the fermented spirit and in which it was poured into puncheons for shipment at a little port two or three miles away. Last night he had taken up his post of watchman in the still-house. There he had to remain from about nine until four o’clock in the morning. He had seen the rum drawn out of the huge vats in which it was stored, had seen the puncheons filled and sealed by the workers, had seen to it that they were carefully loaded on to the wagons that were to convey them away, and even during the intervals when there was little or nothing to do he had hardly dared to close his eyes for a few minutes’ sleep. He had been warned against this; the slaves would steal at the slightest opportunity, he had been told, and he would be held responsible. He had observed, too, that the slaves, half a dozen men, watched him furtively, evidently hoping for some lapse on his part. Once he had pretended to fall asleep, and presently there was a movement on the part of two men towards a rum vat: one of these men had a bucket in his hand. Robert had stood up suddenly and the men had melted into the shadows. How one book-keeper could perform a night of watching in this still-house three times a week, and accomplish his ordinary work in the daytime, seemed to him a problem which he himself would hardly be able to solve. Yet Burbridge appeared to manage it, sheer necessity compelling.
On leaving the still-house with its reeking rum, Robert, fatigued though he was, had out of curiosity wandered over to the boiling-house where the sugar was being made. All night the estate had been in feverish activity. It was customary during the taking off of the crop for a good deal of night-work to be done, and on this his first night as a book-keeper at Rosehall a night-spell had been in full operation.
At four o’clock in the morning there was as yet no glimmer of light, no sign of the dawn which would break later on; but the gloom was pierced and illumined by millions of burning stars which, in that clear atmosphere and at that period of the year, shone out with a wonderful golden brilliancy. By their aid, and with eyes accustomed to the surrounding darkness, he perceived the carts dragging their slow way towards the boiling-house in which the machinery was situated; he saw shadowy human forms moving about singly or in groups, heard the curt commands of headmen in charge of gangs, and the sharp crack of the whips with which they emphasised their orders. The men who were working then would retire shortly, and the day labourers would take their place. All night the toiling and the shouting had gone on. And at intervals there broke out sharp peals of raucous laughter. There were shrill women’s voices intermingled with the harsher tones of the men, and some of these men and women passed him carelessly chewing the cane they had cut for themselves, and talking in a dialect he could not understand. He was to learn later that these people were each entitled to a small daily ration of sugar and rum, from which they drew some of the energy which enabled them to prosecute the arduous duties demanded of them. He was to learn also that, in spite of all vigilance, they stole far more than they were supposed to have and consumed immense quantities of juicy ripe cane.
When he entered it, the boiling-house seemed like a corner of Hades. A three-roller sugar mill was in operation, a mill with three huge steel cylinders or rollers, into one end of which the cane was thrust, while out of the other end the extracted juice poured in a steady yellow stream through an iron gutter into large open receptacles, somewhat like great hollow globes cut in halves, which simmered and bubbled over fires on a long brick fireplace raised about two feet from the level of the ground. The two mills on Rosehall were worked by wind power and by steam; when the wind was light resort was had to steam, as on this night, and now the furnace was going and the heat it generated was infernal.
The men and women were feeding the mill with cane and the furnace with fuel. The men were clothed, each in a pair of trousers only, their sweating black torsos and muscular arms glistening in the glare from the flames. Men were feeding the fires under the shallow cauldrons, or taches as they were called, and constantly the cry rose for “wood, more wood!” With ladles whose handles were several feet long the attendants skimmed the boiling, pungent-sweet liquor from one tache to another, and the thick substance incessantly formed bubbles which burst as incessantly, flinging upwards a thick spray. The voice of the big negro headman, or foreman, who was in charge of the boiling-house that night, rapped out orders to the ladlers to “skim light!” There was a continuous movement. There was a perpetual babbling of voices. What these commands meant, and why there should be such a tumult, in all that glare of flame and terrible heat, Robert could not for the life of him comprehend. He remained in the boiling-house for but a few minutes, noticing that no white man was in charge just then. The black headman was evidently a trusted and a competent man. Not for an instant had he ceased his labour of supervision and harsh commanding because of the unexpected advent of the new book-keeper.
Robert was glad to escape into the open air once more, which was delightfully cool at this hour. He went straight to his quarters, flung wide the only window it possessed, a window made of wooden slats or blinds, which permitted curious persons to peer into the room unimpeded as soon as it was open. That there might be inquisitive eyes gazing upon him did not matter to him in the least just then; indeed, he never thought of it. Thoroughly exhausted he tossed off his clothes, threw himself on the indifferent bed, and fell sound asleep.
He was out of his room at eight o’clock. Burbridge had been up at daybreak and among the fields, he had had no night duty and therefore was expected to be at his work when the slaves should begin to take up their tasks. But he spared a moment to ride up and say a few words to Robert when the latter emerged after a very hasty breakfast; he told Robert what he was to do until further orders. The latter, still feeling an interest in what went on about him, despite his fatigue, had during the last hour been taking in the busy scene that was set out before his gaze. The cutting of the cane went merrily on, the loading of the carts, the unwearied shouting, just as he had seen and heard it yesterday. But now his more practised or more closely observant eyes noticed other things also. Under a great shade tree, a silk cotton, he saw little babies lying on heaps of trash or bits of spread cloth, with one or two women looking after them. There must have been twenty of these urchins, none of them more than two years old, most of them younger, and they lay on their backs and kicked their feet in the air, or rolled about, carefree with the irresponsible freedom of infancy. They were the children of women who were at work and who had brought them forth from their huts, according to custom, to where they might suckle them when necessary. Meanwhile the little ones were placed in the charge of a couple of women whose business it was to see that no harm came to them.
There were some other children also, ranging in years from five to nine, and these were by no means idle. They ran about collecting bits of trash, which could be used in the furnace, and picking up cane leaves and other edible substances for the feeding of the hogs and the cattle of the estate. This was the Piccaninny Gang, the gang of minors, very young, but nevertheless useful, and over them was put an elderly woman, armed with a switch, whose duty consisted in seeing that the piccaninnies did not fail to do something towards defraying the cost of their keep.
But Robert’s attention had been diverted from the antics of the children by some preparations which he saw being made not far away from where he was stationed. It was now nine o’clock; he was feeling somewhat fagged, and these preparations, the nature of which he fully understood, could not tend to an enlivening of his spirits. Burbridge had hastily told him that morning that three of the slaves were to be punished for misdemeanours, and one of these was a woman, the same girl he had saved from a whipping the day before. The slave-driver had reported her case to Mr. Ashman, giving his side of the story, and Mr. Ashman had decided that the girl deserved punishment. Robert suspected that his interference had had much to do with this decision; he was to be taught a lesson. This was, in fact, to be a sort of ceremonial punishment. There were some twenty persons assembled to witness it, clearly the more obstinate of the bondspeople. Burbridge and Ashman were on the spot. Robert had not been summoned, but from where he was he could see what passed with a fair degree of distinctness.
The three culprits, backs exposed were awaiting their punishment. But there was, as it seemed to Robert, a deliberate procrastination. Suddenly he glimpsed a figure on horseback approaching from the Great House and attended by another; the riding was rapid and in a very little while he perceived that the first rider was a woman, white, and at once he knew who it must be. “Mrs. Palmer,” he thought, and felt certain that at least there would be some palliation of the sentence of the unfortunate trio who stood in such abject attitudes anticipating their torture. The girl might even be spared. A woman surely would have some sympathy with her.
The riders arrived, and the first was respectfully greeted by Ashman and Burbridge. The slaves around simply grovelled at the sight of her. Her face could not be distinctly seen by Robert, but he observed that her figure was slight and girlish, her long riding habit sweeping down below her shoes, her feathered beaver placed jauntily on her head. Her right hand held a riding whip. She sat her horse perfectly. He guessed from their attitudes that the condemned persons were beseeching her for mercy.
He moved his horse a trifle nearer to the scene. No one paid any attention to him.
He saw the lady nod to Ashman, who gave a signal. One of the men was seized and tied to a post, and a heavy whip rose and fell with a resounding whack on his skin. The wretch screamed out in fear as well as agony, a piercing scream that must have been heard a quarter of a mile away; but that had not the slightest effect upon the man who wielded the whip. Twenty times came down that terrible instrument; the full sentence was executed; and then came the other man’s turn. Then it was the girl’s. Robert, forgetting that he was only an employee on the estate, and that on his father’s own property in Barbados a similar scene might at that very moment be taking place, dashed swiftly up to the group, though without quite knowing that he had done so or what he was going to say or do. He was given no opportunity to say or do anything. “Go back and watch those slaves load the wagon, Rutherford!” sternly commanded the overseer. “What do you mean by leaving them when you were not sent for?” The voice was arrogant, intolerably insolent, and, as Ashman ceased, Robert heard Mrs. Palmer say: “What is he doing here? He isn’t needed.” She did not even glance at him. Her gaze was fixed on the trembling, weeping young woman, and Robert Rutherford realised that he could not possibly aid the girl and might even make her predicament worse if he dared to say a word. He noticed that the driver he had stopped from beating the girl the day before was the man in charge of the flogging. This man flashed an impudent, triumphant leer at him.
He turned his horse and rode back, revolted, to his station. As he moved away he shuddered, for a long, terrible cry broke from the girl’s lips and continued until her flogging ceased, though only eight lashes were administered to her. She was flogged to her knees.
A wave of disgust swept through him. He was not squeamish; he lived in an age when labourers were treated harshly and callously; in England the men who worked in farm and field had a hard time of it: long hours, heavy labour, wretched remuneration; so that their position was sometimes contrasted with that of the West Indian slaves, to the advantage of the latter. And soldiers and sailors were unmercifully whipped for trivial offences; the use of the whip was believed to be indispensable if discipline was to be maintained. But he himself had never seen a human being flogged before, and a woman at that; and the circumstance that another woman, young, of good breeding, and presumably of ordinary humane feelings, should stand by and see such punishment inflicted startled and shocked him. He knew that slavery was doomed. Emancipation had already been decreed; in a few years there would not be a single slave in these islands, and the bondsmen, aware of it, were now muttering ominously and showing every inclination to disobey their masters and rise in their own behalf. He had noticed something of this spirit in the nearby town of Montego Bay; he had heard about it from the rector; but here on this estate of Rosehall the evil, reckless spirit of former days seemed to manifest itself; the danger that threatened was ignored; here he was back in the eighteenth century instead of being in the early nineteenth. And a woman was the mistress of this estate.
He had not seen the face of the mistress of Rosehall; only her figure. He had heard that she had looks to boast of, was beautiful; but he thought that her countenance must be hard, lined, cruel; that it must reflect a soul that delighted in suffering. Only a devil would willingly watch the agony of others as she had done, was the thought that ran in his mind.
The punishment over, the group broke up, Mrs. Palmer, accompanied by the overseer and her negro attendant, riding off to some other part of the estate. She was evidently making an inspection. Burbridge went into the boiling-house; Robert again gave his attention to the task immediately before him. He perceived that the slaves around went about their work with a sullen, mordant air, now and then exchanging a remark with one another in an undertone; he had a feeling that they were dangerous, deadly, though held in strict subjection. He believed he understood now what was meant by a smouldering human volcano.