Jane’s Career: A Story of Jamaica

Chapter 11

In the life of a large number of “schoolgirls” in the city of Kingston, “running away” has formed at least one important incident. It constitutes the refuge of those who are badly treated, or who are tired of working with the same mistress, or who desire to earn some money (if they are not paid by their first mistress, as is very often the case), or who have been induced to exchange a life of drudgery for the comparative though perhaps temporary comfort of an establishment with a “friend.” It takes more courage than the average girl possesses to go to one’s employer and tell her of one’s intention to leave. That would probably involve an immediate flogging, or her parents might be written to; she might even be threatened with police supervision-a mere threat, of course-and, worse than all that, there would be the indignant eye of the mistress to encounter—a thing most formidable in itself.

Rather than plainly express her desire, then, the average girl will long continue to work at a place of which she has grown thoroughly tired, and even when she has made up her mind to leave she often keeps putting off the final step as long as she possibly can. But the hour comes at last when it is taken. Some morning the mistress wakes to find that there is no servant to answer her call. Or the girl goes out during the day and does not return. Mrs Mason had had such experiences before; hence when she emerged from Jane’s room she knew precisely what had happened. Cynthia and Emma had not yet gone out to their work, and to them she hurried with the tale, “Jane run away!” she ejaculated. “An’ you can bet that she tief some of me things. What a set of them! You ever see such a race of people!”

In the monotony of lower middle-class Jamaica domestic life, however, even the inconveniences occasioned by the flight of a small servant have their compensation in the excitement afforded by the event. Cynthia and Emma raised their hands in sheer horror at this proof of Jane’s iniquity: Mrs Mason’s face expressed unutterable astonishment at this latest evidence of depravity on the part of the servant class. Cecil kept himself away from the group, and went on hastily with his preparations for going to his work.

“Well!” said Cynthia, “I could never have thought it! But you can’t trust any of them: they are all the same. An’ yet we were so kind to Jane!”

“But it’s all your fault, you know, Aunt,” said Emma. “I told you when you sent Rachael away that you shouldn’t bother get any more schoolgirls. They are more pest than profit. You ‘ave all the trouble with them, you teach them everything, an’ the moment they learn, they pick up themself an’ run away. What’s the use of bothering with them?”

“An’ mark you, I pay them,” said Mrs Mason. “Most people don’t pay their schoolgurl one penny; but as I know the little brutes will tief and not work well if you don’t give them something, I never make any of them work for nothing. An’ this is all the reward I get for me kindness!”

She moved towards her cupboard: “Let me see what she steal, for I am sure she gone away with some of me things.”

A diligent counting over of spoons and knives and forks took place, and an exclamation of dismay from the lady soon informed her nieces that something had been taken. It was a spoon that was missed, but Cynthia remembered that she had taken it into her room the night before, and so the alarm died away. The search had to be given up while tea was being prepared, but Mrs Mason was certain that Jane had not gone off empty-handed; she felt confident that. this girl, like one or two others, had at the very least contracted debts in her name at the neighbouring shops, debts which she would be called upon to pay and would repudiate with all the vigour of which she was capable. When her nieces and Cecil (to which gentleman she said nothing) had gone out, she re-commenced her search, but found that Jane had actually taken nothing but her own stock of clothes.

Nor had she left any debts behind, as inquiry proved. This was rather unusual, and proved that Jane, as Mrs Mason had found out long before, was a decent sort of girl. This added to her anger, for she was sorry that the girl’s services would no longer be at her disposal.

“You only exchange a bad for a worse,” she muttered regretfully, and began to think of getting another girl. Then the new servant came in, and the long cycle of Mrs Mason’s troubles and trials recommenced once more.

. . . . .

In the meantime, what had become of Jane?

On the previous night, at about eleven o’clock, when the streets were almost entirely deserted, the girl might have been seen stealing cautiously out of Mrs Mason’s yard with a bundle under her arm. Once outside and at some distance away from her mistress’s place, she changed her rapid, furtive pace into a leisurely walk, for the purpose of preventing suspicion on the part of any policeman who might be more than usually vigilant, and, seeing her with a parcel, be inclined to suspect her of larceny. She strolled towards the eastern section of the city, and in half an hour had arrived at one of the innumerable yards in one of the numerous lanes of Kingston. She pushed the gate and went boldly in, and entered the third of a long range of tenement rooms which formed the habitations of a good many families.

“You come?” was her greeting from a strong-featured young woman of about twenty-three, who was half-sitting, half-reclining on a high bed. “I did almost give y’u up. Thought y’u wasn’t coming again.”

“I had to wait till dem all go to bed,” explained Jane, putting her bundle on the bed. “It look as if dem was goin’ to set up all night! Y’u t’ink dem will find me here?”

“What if them do?” asked the other girl, who had had more than one experience of running away in her earlier youth. “Y’u not a slave-slavery done-away with long time ago. I wouldn’t even bother remember them. Y’u want to wash you’ foot?”

“Yes. An’ you t’ink I will get a job at Mr Repburn?”

“Yes, man,” replied Sathyra (as the other girl was named). “Them want two gurls, as I did tell y’u yesterday; an’ I told one of de clerks that I was goin’ to send one of me frien’s, an’ that him must put in a good word for you. Him say all right. De work is not too hard, an’ if you quick you can make a shillin’ a day, an’ even more. It’s a good job, if y’u can keep it. You must try an’ be friendly wid everybody: that’s the way to get on.”

Sathyra’s philosophy was perfect, but she was herself known as a peaceful person. She had fought the battle of life with a fair amount of success hitherto, however, and that gave her the” right to offer advice to mere beginners.

“I am goin’ to meck friends wid everybody,” Jane assured her. “Fun is better than quarrel. It wasn’t my fault dat me an’ Miss Mason couldn’t get on; but even if we did get on I glad I leave dat sort o’ work. Y’u doan’t get noten for it, an’ you is a slave all de time.”

“It’s better to work in a orfice,” Sathyra agreed. “Most orfice woman get five shillin’s a week, an’ some get six. Dat is what I get, an’ de work is not too bad. And sometimes you get a little present. Y’u can come home soon in de evenin’, an’ y’u can keep you’self tidy all day. Besides, you have every Sunday to you’self, an’ y’u get every public holiday. So, y’u see, it suit a man I Yes, me love, when Sunday mornin’ dawn I can turn over in me bed an’ stretch meself, an’ sleep little more. There is nobody to call out, “Satyr, where y’u is? Y’u don’t lookin’ after de coffee yet?” There is nobody to watch me when I come in an’ when I go out. An’ if I want to go to every picnic, I can go; if I choose to sleep all day when it’s a holiday an’ I don’t want to go out sporting, I can sleep. An’ to tell you de trute, I really love me bed. I like comfort!”

“Y’u have a nice bed,” said Jane, glancing at the enamelled iron bedstead raised on four bricks, and noticing that Sathyra viewed it with obvious pride.

“Yes; it is so-so,” complacently replied Sathyra.

“An’ what is more, I buy it meself. I have it three years now. When I get a little present, a shillin’ or two shillin’s at a time, I put it down till it reach one pound ten, an’ I buy dis bed. So it is me own property, an’ nobody can ever say that them had to give me a bed, as I didn’t have a thing to sleep on.

“There is noten like having you’ own things, for when y’u have a disposition like mine, an’ anybody trouble you too much, y’u can send them about them business.”

Jane had an uncomfortable feeling that some part of this speech might be intended for her, though, ostensibly, Sathyra had in mind the opposite sex.

“I goin’ to save up an’ buy a bed too,” she suggested.

“What for?” asked Sathyra graciously. “Y’u don’t need to, if you an’ me is friend. De room can’t hold two bed, and this one is big enough for de two of us. You don’t trouble ’bout a bed now. Save what money y’u get, an’ buy some nice dress, and sometimes we can go to picnic an’ sport togather. Just as cheap to enjoy you’ life when y’u canan’ when you is young, for who is to know when y’u goin’ to dead? If y’u can eat well, an’ drink well, and have a good frock to put on when you going out, y’u have something. But when’ y’u have to work, like you been workin’ wid dat woman you just leave, it’s better y’u dead.”

“Yes,” agreed Jane heartily; “but dat done away wid now.”

“It is finish and completed,” yawned Sathyra. “Well, it must be after twelve o’clock, so we better go to bed now,” and Jane approved.

The thought of earning a shilling a day-six shillings a week, if she worked on Saturdays-filled the heart of Jane with inexpressible joy. Here were riches and comparative independence within her grasp; here was escape from domestic servitude; here was a future made bright with hope. She thanked God very devoutly that night. It was only two weeks before that she had met Sathyra, and a casual acquaintanceship, begun in a Chinaman’s shop, had rapidly ripened into friendship in the course of a day or two. Jane told Sathyra of her troubles, and Sathyra, with the memories of her own early youth still fresh in her mind, listened sympathetically. She was living alone just then. Her last “friend” had left her rather suddenly, having had a dispute with her on the subject of expenditure; her one child had died some two years before, and her craving for companionship, as well as financial considerations, made it necessary that she should have some one to share her room and her living expenses with her, go to picnics with her, converse with her, and help to make her happy.

“Why don’t y’u leave you’ employer?” she had one day suggested to Jane.

“But where to go to?” was Jane’s very natural question.

“You can stop wid me till you get a job. I am workin’ downtown. There is no vacance where I am now, but I will tell y’u if I hear of anything.”

And Sathyra did hear of something within the next couple of weeks. Not far from the office where she worked was an establishment belonging to one of the liquor merchants of the town. Here, on the average, some twenty girls and women were employed in the corking and labelling of bottles, and changes in the personnel of the staff were not infrequent. Sathyra heard that two assistants were wanted, and went immediately to bespeak one of the vacant positions for Jane. This was on Friday. Meeting Jane on the following day, by arrangement, she told her of the job she had secured for her. It was she who had planned Jane’s escape, as the latter shrank from boldly defying Mrs Mason and walking out of the yard in the full light of day, a method of taking leave which Sathyra at first advised and would have much preferred.

Thus aided and abetted by her friend, Jane had made her great essay towards freedom and financial betterment. It had never occurred to Mrs Mason, when she was sending Amanda about her business, that Jane’s programme had been already mapped out and that the hour of her emancipation was at hand. Cecil had not divined that what he termed the “rudeness” of Jane was but the first expression of her feeling of independence. Jane would have gone in any case on that Sunday night, would have gone whether Amanda had been sent away or not, whether or not Mrs Mason had held the terror of a Monday morning reprimand over her head. not the slightest intention of being turned off “like dog.” And fortune had so arranged it that she should leave a poor situation for a good one.

The change pleased her. She was engaged on Monday morning at the liquor establishment, and turned in to work at once. Seated on a box in front of a sort of counter laden with bottles, equipped with a batch of labels and a tug of mucilage, she plunged into her task. She was but one of a line of other workers. Her job was simple, quickness being the only qualification for the work after she had been shown how to paste the labels on. Sometimes the women sang, a Catholic hymn preferably, though most of them were Protestants; at other times they talked, but conversation was not always easy when they wanted to get through a lot of work. They were paid by results, a shilling a day being the average amount earned; but a very quick girl could earn more, one or two making as much as eight shillings in six days.

The other girls became friendly with Jane after the first hour or so. Learning her name, they addressed her as Miss Burrell; indeed, it was a matter of etiquette with them to speak to one another as Miss So-and-So, only close personal friends calling each other by their Christian names. This was a change from (and an improvement on) the customs and manners of domestic service, and Jane highly appreciated it. She had gone up more than one step on the social ladder.

From seven till twelve she worked, then they ceased for an hour for lunch, Lunch cost her threepence, it being provided by a woman who came in with a tray filled with little plates, each plate containing a bit of stewed meat or some boiled salt fish, a piece of yam or sweet potato, and some rice. It was not a large meal, but it would serve to sustain her until dinner-time; she ate it with the knife and fork supplied by the caterer, and, the meal over, she lounged on her box, placing her back against the wall of the building, stretched out her legs, and composed herself to rest, like the most of the others, for the balance of the hour.

Everybody chatted gaily as though not one of them had a care in the world. They screamed with merriment over some feeble joke, such as when one of them declared that she would never marry a cigar maker because she did not smoke, or when another affirmed that she would not marry at all because she could not undertake to support a husband. Jane laughed with the rest; she thought it fine to be addressed as “Miss”; the work was tiresome, her back ached her; but what an emancipation it was from Mrs Mason’s petty tyranny!

“Where y’u was before y’u come here, Miss Burrell?” asked one of her neighbours when the general conversation lagged a little.

“I was workin’ wid a lady, but I leave her. She follow me up too much,” was Jane’s reply.

“Tcho! dat is a life wouldn’t suit me at all,” commented her questioner. “I wouldn’t be a servant to anybody—I would prefer to sell fruit in de street. Them want to treat you too bad, ma’am, an’ de work is hard. This work hard too,” she added reflectively; “but you can earn more money, and you is you’ own mistress after five o’clock.”

“Them employ y’u all the time?” asked Jane.

“No; sometimes there is noten to do, and then them knock you off. However, what’s de use of fretten, me love? God is in heaven, an’ we mus’ trust to Him. Besides, some of us lucky enough to have a back force.” The expression was new to Jane.

The expression was new to Jane.

“What is a ‘back force’?” she asked.

The innocent query drew forth a scream of laughter from those who heard it. These called out to the others:—

“Miss Burrell want to know what a ‘back force’ is!” and then exploded anew. Such simplicity was as astonishing as it was diverting. Then one girl condescended to explain. “It is a ‘friend,’” she said.

So once again Jane learnt that the inevitable solution, or partial solution, of the problem of living for most women was to be found in assistance from a “friend.” There was, it seemed, no other way, for few of these young women earned enough to live easily upon, and their wants were always increasing. She reverted to the question of domestic service. “I doan’t like to work in a house,” she stated with conviction.

“But some lady is very kind,” said one of the girls to her. “Them treat y’u well. I never work with them myself, but I know some who is very kind.”

“True, my love,” agreed another; “but I wouldn’t like de work: it doan’t suit me. I prefer to be me own mistress.”

This was the general sentiment, and had Jane been a judge of character she would have perceived that these young women were either of a more independent disposition or of a somewhat better class than those who remained domestic servants nearly all their lives. They were rebels; they had no humility in them; in their own way they had aspirations; they wanted to be free. Most of them (city born) had never been domestics. One or two others had early emancipated themselves from that form of service. On the whole they knew very little about it, but that little was sufficient for them. As for Jane, her experience had been a hard one, and she could cordially agree with the views of her new acquaintances.

At one o’clock they straggled back to work, and from that hour until five they pasted labels and hummed hymns, only stopping now and then to have their bottles inspected and checked. Sometimes there was a sharp dispute between them and the man who examined their work. Their inveterate inclination was to think that he was cheating or that he wished to be unreasonable. Jane shared the sentiments of her colleagues, and once during the day she even ventured upon a feeble protest against the man’s complaint. She was quite wrong, but this effort at self-assertion pleased her. She had already begun to feel herself “her own woman.”

She was thoroughly tired when she reached home that afternoon, and for some time she sat idly by the threshold of her little room, watching Sathyra prepare dinner for both of them. Sathyra placed a small box very near to the door, and under the single window which the room possessed. On the box she set a little iron stove filled with burning charcoal, and on this an iron pot. She sat beside the impromptu fireplace, a second box forming her seat, and in a very short space of time she had pealed the bit of yam, scraped the four sweet potatoes, and stripped the skin from the stout “green” plantain that was to form the staple of their evening meal. It was a salt-fish dinner: half a pound of salt fish and three farthings’ worth of pork fat would be adequate flavouring for the breadkind. Sathyra would not ask Jane to assist her just then, knowing that the girl had been tired out by work that was strange to her; as for herself she was accustomed to cooking her meals after going home, and to doing her own washing after that, and Jane would be able to help in a very short time. She talked as she worked; talked business.

“Dis room is eight shillin’s a month, and you will pay half. About five shillin’s a week should give us breakfast in de morning, an’ dinner—sometimes it may be six shillin’s, if we get anyt’ing extra. You will have to pay for you’ own lunch downtown, which is one an’ sixpence a week, so you will only have a few pence leave over for snowball[1] or a car ticket. But we can’t do no better. I doan’t think you will ever earn much more than six shillin’s a week at the start: however, somebody may fall in love wid y’u an’ then you will be all right.”

“I doan’t think anybody gwine to fall in love wid me,” Jane observed, crooking one of her legs and crossing her hands over the knee. She did not believe what she said, but wanted to hear from her friend the latter’s opinion of her charms and prospects.

“You is all right,” returned Sathyra, glancing at her for a moment and nodding her head. “You are young an’ y’u have good looks. You are all right.”

Jane was flattered. She wished to return the compliment.

“You all right too,” she replied. “But you doan’t have nobody now?”

“Not now; but it must be soon. I never too long widout an admirer. But I doan’t use to tecking any-and-everybody, an’ as I have a good job I can afford to pick and choose.”

The breadkind being nearly ready, Sathyra tied the salt fish in a clean bag and plunged it in the pot. All along the front of the range of rooms cooking was going on, and in the gathering darkness the line of lights from half a score of stoves gave a touch of picturesqueness to the simple, homely scene. Some of the people of the yard were washing their clothes, some were standing by their room-doors waiting patiently till dinner should be ready; others were tidying up their little rooms. The smallest number of persons in a room was two, while as many as six could be found in one of these places. These six represented a family. Where only two occupied room, they were either a man and his wife or two women who had clubbed together for companionship and urgent reasons of economy. Although living in the same yard, some of these people were strangers to one another. They knew each other by sight and name, but there was no particularly friendly intercourse between them beyond a courteous salutation and an occasional brief conversation. The yard was like a section of a street, and one chose one’s friends without regard to proximity.

Sathyra soon lifted the pot off the fire, threw the bit of pork into a frying-pan, and placed this upon the blazing coals. The sharp fizzing sound and pleasant odour of the melting pork whetted the appetite of the girls, and Jane, considerably rested, busied herself to help in the final preparations for their meal.

She went into the room and brought out three plates, into one of which the salt fish was put, the melted fat being poured over it. Into the other two plates the breadkind, equally divided, was served. Jane carried the three laden plates inside, while Sathyra scooped the live coals out of the stove and extinguished them, putting them aside for use on the following morning. This done, she followed her friend into the room, beat up the fish with a fork so as to mix it well with the grease, divided it between herself and Jane, and sat down on a chair (the plate in her lap) to eat it. They ate with forks, slowly, and with evident enjoyment. It was, if coarse, a palatable and sufficient meal. More than ever did Jane feel satisfied with her newly-won freedom and independence.

When dinner was over and the plates put away, Sathyra suggested that they should take a walk, and this they did after tidying themselves up a bit. Sathyra was never slatternly, and Jane had a good deal of vanity in her composition. She took some pains with her appearance, and now that she was her own mistress she could indulge her tastes to the extent of her financial capacity. It was, therefore, two very decent-looking girls that went out for a walk that night, and two thoroughly contented girls that returned. They had wandered about the streets for an hour so so, going nowhere in particular and seeing nothing of unusual interest; yet they had enjoyed the walk because of the absolute lack of restriction on their movements, on their goings out and comings in. They were well satisfied, too, with one another. There was, for that day, no fly in the ointment of Jane’s satisfaction.

Yet the novelty of all things mundane wears away sooner or later, and Jane’s new life could be no exception to the rule. In about a week she had become accustomed to it; in less than a month she found that her work was hard and tedious, that she could not always earn six shillings a week, no matter what exertions she made, and that there were a lot of disagreeable things to put up with both at the down-town establishment and at home. It was impossible for two young women of different temperaments to live together without some friction, and Jane soon discovered that Sathyra had a sharp temper. Jane had now to do her full share of the cooking and of such other household work as had to be performed, and had, of course, to wash her own clothing, not being able to pay to have it done. Thus her time on week days was fully occupied; only on Sundays did she find leisure to indulge in that spacious indolence so attractive to those who live in a tropical climate and who love to revel in the sun-warmed air.

Sunday was a great day for her. She began it with a more sumptuous breakfast than usual; a breakfast of chocolate and bread and avacado pear, or bread and roasted salt fish, with perhaps a bit of hard cocoa-nut flavoured with “new sugar.” Dinner she had at one o’clock, usually rice boiled with pease, seasoned plentifully with escalion and cocoa-nut milk, and served with a small piece of salt beef or pork. At six in the evening she had supper, and after that she went for a ride on one of the tram-cars, or went to church with her friend. Returning home, she would spend a little time in talk, and then to bed.

Once or twice she went to a picnic. Routine was the order of her life; but it was not so much variety that she craved, as an easier time and better clothes to wear. Half-unconsciously, her mind often ran on her chances of getting some help from some one who might like her. She did not formulate the proposition boldly in her mind: she did not determine to seek for a “friend,” she did not deliberately wish that anyone should come and plainly propose to set up housekeeping with her. Toe influence of her parents’ admonitions was still fairly strong upon her. But she was not by any means the same girl that had left the country only a few months before; she saw most things now in a different light.

Her father had warned her to “keep herself up”; she had learnt that most persons regarded that as practically impossible in the circumstances with which she had to cope. She did not think over these things as clearly as we state them; she did not think about them at all. Clear thinking was not a characteristic of hers; she simply looked at life differently now, without even quite knowing that she did so. She was aware that, on the whole, she was luckier than most girls of her age, for how many of them earned even half a crown a week? Yet, considerable as were her wages, she found it just sufficient to keep her. With the characteristic insouciance of the West Indian peasant, however, she did not allow even the immediate future to trouble her much, or for more than a few moments at a time. the day and for the day.

But if the novelty of all things earthly wears off after a while, it is equally true that changes take place even in the most apparently uneventful lives. Jane’s life, seemingly uninteresting to the outsider, had already been eventful, and was soon to change still more.

  1. “Snowball” is a mixture of crushed ice and syrup sold on the streets of Kingston.


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