The White Witch of Rosehall
The finest private residence in Jamaica, the Great House of Rosehall loomed huge and imposing in the gloom of the early December evening. It stood three stories high, broad flights of hewn stone steps leading up to a wide portico from which one entered the living-rooms situated on the second floor. A boy was waiting for the expected visitor; Robert threw him his reins, quickly ascended the steps and found himself facing a magnificent pair of folding doors, four inches thick and of solid mahogany, which hung on great brass hinges and opened into a spacious and lofty reception-room dimly lighted now by a pair of silver candelabra. There was an instant suggestion of wealth about this room, even of magnificence. But what caught and held his eyes was the figure of the mistress of Rosehall, who stood by a table placed near the doors; as he entered she moved forward to meet him with eager, outstretched hand, and now, for the first time, he noticed how small she was.
She had looked a bigger woman when he had seen her on horseback that afternoon, clothed in her riding habit. Perhaps, because of his own splendid height, she seemed to him smaller than she actually was. But all the stronger because of her slimness and the apparent fragility of her form was the appeal she made to him; robed all in white, with throat and bosom exposed, she was daintily graceful in spite of the spreading crinoline which, in accordance with the fashion of the times, she wore. His heart pounded rapidly as he took her hand in his and felt the soft, unmistakable pressure of her fingers and heard her words of welcome.
He had changed from his working suit. Psyche had been put to work that afternoon and had ironed out his things, which had been sent from Montego Bay the day before. He was dressed now as though he had been bidden to a banquet; she noted this at once, and was pleased by his obvious desire to appear at his best in her sight.
“Sit here,” she said, pointing to a massive horsehair sofa, “dinner will shortly be served.”
The sofa was to the right of the room, among the shadows; he placed himself by her side and she began to talk quickly, almost feverishly, as one labouring under some great suppressed excitement.
“This is where I live, where I have lived for many years,” she said, “and I am all alone in this huge place; not a very cheerful life, is it?”
“I wonder why you do it,” he replied; “Montego Bay is not far; there would be company there, society for you. And of course there is Spanish Town and Kingston.”
“All nearly as dull as is Rosehall or Palmyra,” she asserted. “You don’t know them. And the people—horrible! They are narrow, fussy, inquisitive, full of envy and bitterness, always talking about one another, and nothing good to say. Wait till you know them!”
“Then you prefer to live alone, hiding your beauty here?” he asked, though wondering at his audacity.
“Do you think I am so beautiful, then?”
“You know you are!”
“Thanks. You do say pretty things. Of course,” she hesitated a moment, then went on, “I haven’t always lived at Rosehall, and I haven’t always lived here alone. My husbands——”
“Yes; I have been more than once married; I want to tell you about that. I want to tell you before anyone else does. You see, I believe we are going to be great friends, and I have no friends to speak of—none in fact. And I should like you to know how unfortunate and unhappy I have been. I have been married three times, Robert.”
“Three times!” He could not for his life have avoided the exclamation. It had been uttered before he was well aware of it.
“Yes, three times. And they are dead; my first husband died of apoplexy, the second one went mad, tried to stab me and actually succeeded, and then stabbed himself. The last one—he was my first husband’s nephew—died of drink, and yet people in Montego Bay seem to think that I was responsible for his end! How could I prevent anyone from drinking himself to death? Do I look strong enough to keep the bottle from a determined man?” He knew that she smiled as she asked this question, though her face was not distinctly visible in the dim candle light.
“Not exactly,” he answered smiling also. “But you have been unlucky above the lot of women. And yet you don’t look as if you have been married more than once. You are so young!”
“But I was married first at eighteen, and my husband lived only until I was twenty-one. The other two married me for my properties, I think; and the one who went mad died less than two years after I became his wife.”
“I don’t think anyone could marry you thinking of anything but yourself,” he protested. “What are your properties compared to yourself?”
“You say that,” she replied, “but you are different; I can see that. I have been a widow now for three years, and I made up my mind never to marry again, to have nothing more to do with men: I had had enough of them, you understand. The one who was a drunkard used to beat me; he would strike me cruelly sometimes, and I could go to no one for protection. It was an awful life. After his death I resolved to shut myself up in my estates, this one, and Palmyra behind. I have not been to Montego Bay for two years.”
“What an existence!”
“You may well say so. Even during the day I rarely move about on the estates, though now and then, like today, I have to make an inspection. I had to be present at that flogging you witnessed: I hated to be there, though I could not show it, for weakness would be fatal in dealing with slaves. But I had to be present, for they would have been treated far more harshly than they were had I not been. That was why I was there.”
“I thought so; I was convinced of that.”
“But not at first?”
“No,” he admitted, “not at first. I was shoc—surprised to see you watching such a scene. I understand better now.”
“I want you to understand, for later on you will hear that I love to witness the suffering of my slaves—a manifest lie! If people, white or black, deserve to suffer, then suffer they must; I don’t see why they should be pitied. But if I look on while they are being punished it is through a sense of duty—and to prevent too much punishment. That girl today was only given eight lashes. I could have given her three times as many.”
“I am glad you didn’t! It would have killed her.”
“Oh, no; it wouldn’t. These people have skins as tough as their dispositions, and those are tougher than you will ever guess. But slaves are valuable now and they have to be pampered. Fifty years ago we could burn them alive for a serious offence; today we are afraid to whip them, and they grow more insolent every hour. But I wanted to talk to you about myself, not about my people. I was saying how for three years I have lived in this place, and the one behind it, a sort of woman hermit, visiting no one, being visited by no one, and traduced by many who have never even seen me.”
“They are base to treat you so,” he exclaimed indignantly. “There is only one explanation: they envy you your beauty and your wealth.”
“It may be so,” she answered softly. “But, of course, had I wished it, they would have come to Rosehall. There would have been plenty of men to come; some wanted to. I would not encourage them, desperately lonely though I was. I wished to have nothing to do with them: I believe I had almost come to hate men.”
“All men?” he queried, knowing what the answer would be, for had she not shown him favour?
“You know I couldn’t say that now,” she laughed. “I myself asked you up here today; I am with you now, telling you my miserable little troubles. If you were ungenerous you would say I was bold and forward, and pushing myself on you.”
“If I were a fool and an ingrate I might say that,” he cried, “and even then I don’t think I should dare. You are kind, very kind to me, an unknown stranger who is only your second book-keeper. Why should you be so, unless——”
“Unless what?” she asked, prompting him, for he had paused.
“Unless you have a kind heart,” he concluded.
“I don’t know that I have. My kind heart was warped long ago. But I want to be nice to you, Robert, because I like you—an unwomanly avowal, perhaps, but I have long ceased to care about what is called womanly by women who rob other people’s husbands and lovers and still think that they are virtuous and good! I like you, and I am tired of all this loneliness. I want you to help me; and you would not do it as Ashman does—for money. I want you to help me as a friend.”
“I know nothing about this country, I am afraid,” confessed Robert; “and you know nothing about me, remember. We have met only within the last few hours.”
A rap sounded on the door to the rear of them, the door opened slowly and a girl’s voice was heard:
“Dinner is on de table, missis.”
“Come,” she said, rising, and they went into the dining-room.
Somewhat smaller than the hall they had just left, it was nevertheless a large, lofty, handsome apartment, running the whole length of the right wing of the house. In the room, besides the sideboard and a score or so of highly polished chairs, there were two tables, one, a huge oblong mahogany piece; the other, a small circular table set for dinner, with a two-branched silver candelabrum in which tall wax candles burned with a steady flame.
They seated themselves, two barefoot slave girls attending them. The meal began with turtle soup, and one of the girls filled their glasses with madeira.
A glance from their mistress sent these waitresses some distance off, though their eyes were vigilant to watch the diners so as to anticipate their wants. The girls looked nervous, painfully anxious to make no mistake.
“You know nothing about Jamaica, yes,” Mrs. Palmer took up the conversation where it had broken off. “But it is not professional help that I want, it is advice, disinterested suggestions. You said to me today that you had come out to learn about planting. You are not a regular book-keeper; anyone can see that. Won’t you tell me something about yourself?”
He told her briefly all that there was to know. He told her the truth.
“I might almost have guessed something of the sort,” was her comment; “though if you were a mere book-keeper it would make no difference to me. You would still be you, don’t you see; someone that could assist a poor, unfortunate woman who is badly in need of genuine friendship.”
A girl came forward to remove the soup plates, another filled the wine glasses; again they withdrew.
“I am at your service,” said Robert awkwardly. “Tell me what you want me to do from time to time, and I will do my best.”
“You shouldn’t live in such squalid quarters,” she said suddenly. “Would you like to stay with Ashman, the overseer?”
She eyed him narrowly; she looked relieved when she saw distaste registered in his face.
“With the overseer? No, thanks! I shall be much happier where I am.”
“I understand, Ashman is not very pleasant to subordinates, though you are not going to be a subordinate of his. Would you like to live up here?”
“Here? But how could I! You and I together in this house? What would Ashman and Burbridge and your other white employees say?”
She made no effort to disguise the contempt in her eyes and voice. “Do they matter?” she asked.
“But the people in Montego Bay? Your own class. When they knew, they would—well, you—you can guess what they would do, can’t you?”
“Talk? But this isn’t England; it is Jamaica; and we are miles and miles away from Montego Bay and anywhere else. Besides, what would there be to say? We are together now, aren’t we? Where is the harm? Where would the harm be if you stayed here tonight, in one of these many rooms; what real difference would it make whether you slept in a room upstairs or in your own room in the book-keepers’ house? What would the actual difference be?”
“None, actually; but——”
“It is what might seem, not what really was, that you are thinking of, isn’t it? But you are independent and so am I. This is my property, and I am mistress here. I don’t care now what is said about me; I have suffered too much to care. Are you less brave than I, Robert?”
“For your own sake——” he began, and she laughed.
“I can take very good care of my own self; had I not been able to do so, where do you think I should be now? But you can decide what you think best; only, remember that you can stay at the Great House if you wish, and here is the only place on Rosehall where you should stay. They say it is haunted,” she added abruptly. And again she watched him keenly.
“By ghosts? Of whom?”
“Of the men, the people who have died here. Another of their lies. I am a woman and I stay here alone.” She swallowed another glass of wine quickly; she had been keeping pace with him in his drinking.
“And you do not believe in ghosts, of course!”
“Do you?” she asked.
“Frankly, I don’t know. Who knows if he doesn’t? But you haven’t answered me.”
“Ghosts, Robert? Spirits of the dead? Spirits of hell? Yes, I believe in them; I know that they exist; I have seen them! Don’t be startled; I am not raving; I tell you I have seen them. But Rosehall Great House itself is not haunted; no house can be haunted if there lives in it a man or a woman strong-minded enough to defy anyone, anything, that might wish to return from the grave to re-visit the scenes of its bodily existence. I can keep away any spirit by the force of my mind; they may be outside this building, they may creep and crawl close, close up to the windows to the threshold of the door; but inside, where I am, they can never come. It is not of them I am afraid; I despise them in death as I despised them in life! They were weaker than I when alive, and I am still stronger than they are now that they are dead.”
She had spoken fiercely, bitterly, heated with wine as she was and filled with a sense and feeling of her own power. He gazed at her astonished, seeing her in this new mood; he was getting a glimpse of another side to her character, a stronger, fiercer, more imperious though fascinating personality. She rose from the table with an abrupt movement; they had drunk more than they had eaten. “Come,” said she, “I will show you the house, the haunted house, where I live by myself.”
She bade him take up the candelabrum and led the way into a hall behind the great room in which she had met him. Here he had a glimpse of a broad polished stairway to the left, which obviously led up to the third story of the building, a stairway of mahogany with carved ornamentation and well in keeping with the magnificence of this spacious West Indian home. He noticed particularly now the deep embrasures of the windows whose sills of mahogany were comfortable seats; he glanced up at the arched doorway, high and ornamented, which led from the room in which he was into that where he had been received an hour before. “We’ll go upstairs later on,” she said, and led the way outside.
They stood on a flagged piazza; above them a wide balcony extended the whole length of the upper floor, and upon this balcony doors and windows opened. Seen from the rear, the house seemed to be of two stories only; but Robert knew that this was because the ground floor with its many apartments lay under the flagstones he trod. In front of them was a little wooden structure with sharply sloping roof, and in the midst of it an opening into which a flight of brick steps descended. But the lady did not offer to take him down to this region; she turned to her left, indicating a suite of rooms which was attached to the main building by a paved covered way which was the segment of a circle in shape, and curving outwards. This suite stretched straight from the end of the covered way towards a rising in the land to the south. On the opposite hand was another covered path and another suite. A flagstone veranda fronted each suite.
Taking the light from him she led the way. She flung open the first of three doors in this range of rooms; he saw within the room thus revealed a large billiard table, evidently long unused, for there was heavy dust upon it. The second apartment was a concert-room, as its appointments showed; the third was a bedroom, a guest-room clearly, and that too gave signs of not having been for a long time occupied.
“All built regardless of cost,” she said with a little laugh; “but people were much richer in Jamaica then than we are today. There weren’t so many missionaries in those days to preach to them and stir up discontent among their slaves.”
“It is a place well worth having,” he answered for the sake of saying something.
“But almost a prison for a woman who has to live in it alone,” she rejoined.
They crossed over to the other side, through a sort of fruit garden with full-grown trees standing about it. Just as they had nearly reached their objective a puff of wind suddenly coming down from the hills to the south, which rose behind the building, extinguished the candles, and they stood in the soft darkness, with the trees moving and sighing gently, and the dainty, white-robed woman looking, as it seemed to Robert’s fancy, very much like a delicate ghost.
“I don’t mind the dark, do you?” she asked, coming close to him. “I can call one of the girls to get a light, but these rooms are not very interesting; they are for the house servants, and that one at the end is the kitchen. You can see them any other time; indeed, there is nothing in them to see. I’ll take you upstairs now.”
She took his hand to guide him; he closed his fingers over hers with a gentle pressure; he felt her answering clasp, tender and persuasive.
They regained the rear hall and then went back to the dining-room; she still leading him, for it was dark in the house. She placed the candelabrum on the big banqueting table; then stood still for a space very near to him. He heard her sigh.
“Can I relight the candles for you?” he asked, but this she did herself, not answering. She handed him the lights. “Hold them high,” she suggested, “or the breeze may put them out again. We’ll go upstairs.”