Jane’s Career: A Story of Jamaica

Chapter 1

Daddy Buckram was chief elder in the little village church on the hill, and whenever anything of importance happened or threatened to happen in the village he was always consulted in regard to it, and never failed to make some remarks which he considered appropriate to the occasion. To-day he sat in the canvas easy-chair in Mr Burrell’s hut and lectured a girl of about fifteen years of age who stood humbly before him holding her hands behind her back as she had been instructed by her mother to do, and listening to his words of advice without quite understanding what half of them meant. There were several other persons in the room. There were the girl’s parents, sturdy peasants who owned three acres of land and the tiny house they lived in, and who looked upon their property as a bank upon which they could always draw. There was their eldest son, a lad turned nineteen, who was still undecided whether he should remain at home and help his fat her, or emigrate to Costa Rica or Panama, there to carve out an independent career for himself. There were the three younger children, a girl of thirteen and two boys; there were also three or four neighbours who had come in to her Daddy Buckram make one of the speeches for which he was famous. The room was crowded, and some of the people present were obliged to stand, there being in the hut but three wooden-seated chairs, the easy-chair which the Elder occupied, and a small wooden couch but this crowding did not inconvenience Daddy Buckram, whose long and important connection with a church had developed in him an insatiable craving for large and attentive audiences.

“Jane,” he continued impressively after a pause, “Kingston is a very big an’ wicked city, an’ a young girl like you, who de Lord has blessed wid a good figure an’ a face, must be careful not to keep bad company. Satan goeth about like a roaring lion in Kingston, seeking who he may devour. He will devour you if you do not take him to the Lord in prayer. Do you’ work well. Write to you’ moder often, for a chile who don’t remember her parent cannot prosper. Don’t stay out in the street in de night, go to church whenever you’ employer allow you. If sinners entice thee, consent thou not. Now, tell me what I say to you.”

Jane hesitated a while, then answered: “You say I mus’ behave meself, sah, an’ go to church, an’ don’t keep bad company, an’ dat de devil is a roarin’ lion. An’ … an’ dat I must write mumma.”

The Elder smiled his approval. “I see,” he observed benignantly, “that you have been giving my words attention. If you always remember them like that, you will conquer in de battle.”

“Dat is so, Daddy Buckram,” remarked Jane’s mother, pleased that her daughter had won such high commendation. “I tell Jane just what you done tell her, an’ now if she go an’ do anyting foolish it will be all her own fault. We bring her up decent an’ respectable; she know dat her fader an’ me married long before she born; so dat if she go to Kingston an’ disgrace herself now, she will has to lie down on de bed she meck for herself. You hear what I say, Jane?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“An’ what you’ moder say, is what I say,” said her father. “Keep you’self up when y’u is in Kingston, an’ don’t allow any of those Kingston buoy to fool you up. Keep straight!”

As nobody seemed to have anything. else to say, Jane’s mother asked Daddy Buckram if he would have some sugar and water and some fruit; this refreshment he graciously consented to take (indeed, the old gentleman never refused refreshment of any kind); then Jane and the other young people went outside, leaving the older folk to converse with the Elder while he refreshed himself after his semi-spiritual labours.

After Jane had escaped from the observation of the Elder and her parents her demeanour changed considerably. She danced rather than walked, her strong legs and bare feet springing off. The hard white limestone road as though they were made of rubber. It was no v definitely decided that she should go to Kingston to work, and the excitement with which such a prospect filled her could scarcely be restrained. She ran across the road to another hut exactly like the one she had just left; there she found three other girls, two of her own age, one about five years older. They were evidently waiting. to hear the news, and they instantly guessed what the decision had been from her gay manner and the bright look on her face.

“It’s all right?” asked the eldest.

“Yes; Daddy Buckram tell mumma dat on in Kingston, an’ de lady say she a shillin’ a week an’ look after me. to-marrow.”

“But you lucky, though!” remarked younger girls, with just a suggestion of voice. “Fancy you gwine to Kingston! I wish it was me!”

“Y’u right!” exclaimed the eldest, who, two years before, had lived in Kingston for two months, and had eyer since been contemplating a return to the city, this time for good. “God! it’s there people dress an’ enjoy themself! Every evenin’ when I was dere I use to go for a long car drive, right round de belt-line. Everyting was spanking, man! When y’u go down King Street y’u see de store all full up of people buyin’ tings; and Sunday night the church are full, an’ y’u can go to Rockfort Garden for a drive, an’ see moving pictchure show. It’s a sweet life, man! If y’u go there once y’u don’t want to come back at all, at all!”

“An’ fancy Jane. going now, eh?” said one of the others. “Well, perhaps my turn will come some day. We mus’ live in hope. What Daddy Buckram say to you?”

“Him say I musn’t have nothing to do wid de Kingston buoy, for dem is all a roarin’ lion.”

“Dat is all foolishness,” said the eldest decisively. “Some is good an’ some is bad; some is gentleman and some is ruffian. But y’u can’t say dem is all wort’less, for I used to have a dude in Kingston an’ him treat me high-class. It was him give me dis ear-ring I wearin’ now.”

She shook her head as she spoke, the better to display the pair of cheap gold-plated ear-rings she wore.

“Him was goin’ to sea,” she went on, “oderwise, perhaps I wouldn’t come back here at all.”

“But you is big,” said one of the others, the same that had wished she was in Jane’s place. “You is a big ‘ooman, an’ can go to Kingston as y’ u like. If I was like you I wouldn’t stay here. Even if I did have to run away, I would go.”

“But suppose y’u didn’t get noten to do?” asked the eldest. “Dat is what y’u have to think about. Kingston is not like de country. If y’u don’t have a job, or some body to help y’u, you may suck salt through a wooden spoon![1] Jane is all right, for she goin’ wid a lady who will look after her. When I went, I did go wid me aunt. But I couldn’t go by meself, for I don’t know what I would do. I have to wait fo’ my chance.”

Jane, feeling that she occupied a superior and enviable position, said good-naturedly, “I wish de whole of y’u was going wid me. But I not gwine to have anything to do wid boys, for I promise me parents to keep meself up. I gwine to save my money, an’ come back.”

“What y’u goin’ to come back for?” asked the lady who had already had experience of city life.

This question was a poser for Jane, for she knew it was not intended by her parents that she should return. She had now reached an age when she was rapidly approaching womanhood; she had left school some two years before, and had been assisting her mother to “work” the piece of land they owned and to carry its produce every week or every fortnight to the near-by town market. But her sister was now big enough to do this, and even the younger children could help. Some sort of employment, therefore, had to be found for her, and as a Kingston lady had come to spend a week or two in the village and had expressed a desire to take back to the city with her a decent girl to do some light household work, the mother, hearing of this, had hurried to this lady and offered Jane to her as one who would suit her in every particular. The lady had put Jane’s mother through an elaborate catechism, and if the old woman had been of a reflective nature, she must have concluded that what the lady wanted was not a little peasant girl to perform light domestic duties, but a human angel, perfect in all respects, and certain to give no trouble whatever; for, as the lady herself asserted, she had had a great deal of trouble with servants, and would not take Jane unless her character was absolutely without reproach. Jane’s mother assured her that it was, and offered to bring the parson’s testimony to support her own. The lady had dispensed with this. She contended that the parson would hardly know much about Jane, and that she had already had some unfortunate experiences with servants who had come to her recommended by parsons. In the end she consented to take the girl, and the conference that had been held that day with Daddy Buckram had been for the purpose of impressing upon Jane the momentous change which was about to take place in her life.

She was going out into the world to make a career for herself, and she knew it. She had said she would save money and return, mainly with the view of showing that she intended to live up to the high standard of conduct which the Elder had set before her. Asked then, what she proposed to come back for, she had no answer to give. Her interlocutor laughed. “Y’u don’t know what you sayin’,” she remarked. “Wait till y’u see Kingston!”

“As for savin’ you’ money: y’u think a shillin’ a week is any money in Kingston? I wouldn’t work fo’ less than four shillin’s a week, an’ to tell you de trute, I would have to get somebody to assist me. Of course, you is a little girl, an’ what will do for you wouldn’t’ do for me. But all de same,’ a shillin’ a week is noten [nothing].”

Jane was sufficiently sophisticated to know what her companion meant; for even in the little village the young woman was known as one who “carried on” with the few young men who had not migrated, and who managed, by dint of irregular labour, to earn a few shillings a week for their support. It was a decaying village, this; the men had left their properties to be looked after by the girls and women, and had either gone to help dig the Panama Canal, or had migrated to such flourishing parishes as Portland and St Mary, where labour was better remunerate than in the little village where they lived. Some of the women had gone away too, but the opportunities open to them were not as many or as good as those which the men found elsewhere. In this village of about a hundred souls there were not more than thirty men and boys; many of these were of the Don Juan type, and not a few held firmly to the principle of a plurality of temporary wives. The women did most of the work of the fields. They took the produce to the neighbouring town market; many of them attended church on Sunday, though the church was fully a mile away; and the children were sent to school intermittently, walking their two miles a day under a blazing sun and thinking nothing of the distance.

Sometimes a regularly-ordained clergyman held forth at the church; more often it was one of the Elders who occupied the pulpit. Entertainments were rare, life was a dead level of monotony broken mainly by periodical business visits to the nearest town, or by rare excursions to Kingston. Everything done in the village was soon known to everyone, everyone’s reputation was a matter of public property. Moral censors were not many, yet those parents who were married desired that their children should not stray from the path of virtue, though, when they did, they were never turned out of the home as outcasts, a lenient attitude towards all frailty of conduct being of the. very texture of life in the village. No one over twelve years of age could pretend innocence, and no one did; amongst themselves the young people sometimes talked in a manner that would have caused Daddy Buckram to groan in horror, he having for some time now left the primrose path of dalliance to tread the steep and narrow way. Some of the girls, however, were very well-behaved, and amongst these was Jane; yet it was I characteristic of the easy temper of the country folk that they never thought of prohibiting their children from mixing with Celestina, who, ever since she had .1; returned from her brief visit to Kingston two years before, had exhibited a bolder and freer demeanour than before. That is to say, Celestina did not show that comparative regard for secrecy in matters of intimate conduct which the ethics of the village demanded. Still, though this was commented upon, it brought no punishment, and as Celestina’s mother was still alive, and had a provision ground of her own, there was no reason in the world why anyone should venture even to rebuke that young lady, who was, as a matter of fact, in an absolutely independent position, and quite prepared to remind any censor of it.

The four girls sat in front of Celestina’s house, which was built near the side of a road that ran through the village and passed through many a similar settlement for fifty or sixty miles. The hut was of wattle and plaster, and thatched with the plaited branches of some native palm. It had once been coated on the outside and inside with a layer of whitewash; but the wash had faded, and so the hut was mud-coloured and somewhat dilapidated in appearance. On either side of the road a few more such huts were to be seen; the other houses of the village were hidden from sight by the trees that grew everywhere; to reach them you had to climb over some stiff and rather stony tracks, or push your way along footpaths which, unless you knew them very well, you might easily miss, and so stray into the woods. Every hut was surrounded by a field in which yams and potatoes and coffee grew, and sometimes sugar-cane, and always bananas and breadfruit. Fowls and one or two goats were kept by the better-off peasants, and wandered about at, will. Some of the people owned donkeys. Even the poorest seemed to have a starveling dog.

There was a shop in the village, kept by a brown man who passed most of his time in sitting on a bench in front of his establishment, reading a two-days’ old newspaper and talking politics with anyone who might drop in for a chat. He was regarded as a repository of great learning by the people of the village, as actually knowing more than Daddy Buckram, though, on the other hand, not sanctified as the Elder was. Jane sometimes went to his shop to buy things for her parents, at which times, during the last few months “or so, he would chuck” her under the chin and tell her that she was growing into a fine-looking girl, and would strongly advise her not to have anything to do with any of the common fellows around, hinting at the same time that he was by no means to be placed in the same category.

The village was built on the lower slope of a hill which went gradually rising until it reached its summit a mile or so away. Then it sloped again, the ground afterwards swelling into still a loftier elevation. In the distance, high mountains towered, silent and peaceful, clothed with the dreamlike green and gray beauty so typical of the languorous tropics. In whatever direction one looked, one saw trees, and trees, and yet -more trees. Most of them were giants, with massive branches from which hung parasitic tendrils that swept the ground; here and there great limestone boulders jutted out amidst the green, some covered with lichen, some shining white in the sun. The heat was intense. At this moment—it was nearly full noon—a flood of light poured fierce and yellow down from a deep blue sky, and from the surface of the road a blinding glare arose.

Everything, man and beast alike, moved slowly in the village. The intense heat, the vast stillness of dreaming mountains and distant sky, the warm heavy scented breeze, the little effort that was required to support life, all tended to make indolence seductive and activity a curse. Yet there was unrest in the village. The men would not remain, even the women wanted to go elsewhere. They had their grievances: sometimes a drought came, and they saw their fields parched and their crops withered, and they were reduced to sore distress. Then sometimes heavy rains would follow the drought, flood rains that swept away their precious soil, washed out their provisions, and were now and then so fierce as to cause landslides and the loss of property and lives. Then it was that through their pastor they would appeal to the Government to help them, but the help was not always forthcoming; in the meantime they had to pay their taxes, a form of contribution to which they could never quite reconcile themselves.

Seated on the ground in front of Celestina’s residence, their backs propped against tree stumps, or against the hut itself, our four girls were now resting after the performance of the morning’s trifling work. Clad in cheap coloured prints, very much soiled, the all-in-one frocks drawn up into bundles round their waists and there secured with cords, their legs bare from the knees downwards, they were each revolving in their minds (with the exception of Jane) how they could manage to escape to some place where life would be different from what it was in the village. They represented the new generation of Jamaica peasants; they had learnt to read and write; they were fond of dressing on Sundays; and, if they still worked in the fields, they did not like it. They were all for “going to town” or “going foreign,” as the men were doing, but did not know how to set about it. Kingston presented itself to their imaginations as a wonderful place where life could be enjoyed, wages were good, and where one did not have literally to grub in the earth for a living.

“Kingston big?” asked Jane after a pause during which she had resolved not to protest any further her intention to return to the village.

“Big!” exclaimed Celestina, “big! My father! You can walk till y’u tired and yet pass house after house. Big house, too. Bigger than de church, bigger than any house up here. An’ y’u can drive right round in de car till y’u sick of it, yet y’u is still in de town. An’ if y’u want to see church, it is Kingston y’u mus’ go to. When it come to Sunday evening y’u put on you’ lace frock, an’ tie you’ hair wid ribbon, an’ go out for a walk before y’u go to service. That is de time y’u can just hear de young men them: “What a nice-lookin’ girl, eh? I bet y’u she come from de country.” Then ef y’u sort of pretends no! to hear dem, some of dem will call out, “See here, miss! Hi! y’u might say good evenin’!” An’ them wink at you an’ laugh.”

“An’ what. you say?” asked Jane and the others all at once, breathless for information.

“Well, it all depen’s on whether y’u want to notice them or not. I used to form as if I wouldn’t look at dem, for none of dem did please me. But de dude I did get, an’ who I would be all right wid now if him didn’t gone away, I meet him outside Coke Church piazza one Sunday evenin’ when there was a harvest festival goin’ on. I was comin’ out of de church, and I see a good-looking young man take off ‘him hat an’ say, “Good evenin’, my gracious queen!” Something tell me to answer, an’ I say: “Good evenin’, sah, but why y’u call me queen? I are only a pheasant gurl!” Y’u see, I talk in dat big way, so dat he could know that though I come from de country I was edjucated. Him tell me him call me a queen because I was beautiful, an’ from one ting to anoder we went on talkin’, an’ him offer to walk home wid me, an’ we became friendly till him went away an’ I had to come back up here wid me aunt. But I goin’ back to Kingston, though! No fear!”

Thus, completely sophisticated, spoke Celestina, the others regarding her as one might look upon a traveller who had returned from some wonderful unknown country where everything was different from what one knew.

“I will soon see everything,” said Jane, when her companion ceased. “But I have to work, an’ you did go wid you’ family.”

“Yes; dat meck a difference. But ef y’u get a friend like mine, y’u needn’t boder tp work. What y’u goin’ to meck you’self a slave for?”

But here Jane shook her head resolutely. “No,” she said. “I promise me fader to keep meself up, an’ I gwine to do it. Perhaps I may married one of dese days; who is to tell?”

Celestina laughed the laugh of the sceptical. “Mary,” she asked, turning to. one of the others, “y’u mean to tell me dat if y’u could get somebody to look after you now, y’u wouldn’t teck him?”

“Me!” exclaimed Mary. “After I looking for a good young man now! Jane don’t know what she sayin’!”

The fourth girl said nothing, being apparently of no great importance in the councils of the others. She was the dullest of the four, with a rather plain and stupid face.

All of them were, to superficial appearances, black. But in a country where racial intermixture has been going on for some two hundred years, large numbers of persons who appear black have a strain of white blood in their veins, a strain which sometimes shows itself in the smoothness and shading of the skin, sometimes in the features. A practised eye would have pronounced Celestina to be a “sambo,” or one-fourth white. Jane was darker, strongly built and robust, but her features, the nose especially, hinted at some white ancestor. Anyone accustomed to the Jamaica peasants’ appearance would have pronounced her good looking, an opinion with which she would have entirely agreed.

  1. May have a hard time of it.


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