Jane’s Career: A Story of Jamaica

Chapter 13

When Sathyra walked into her yard that evening, after a day’s experience that she had found very annoying, she was surprised to find that Jane had arrived before her, and had actually moved out of the room the few things she possessed. Jane, in fact, had risen to the occasion; she had decided that it was impossible for her and Sathyra to live together any longer, and had proceeded to make arrangements for an immediate removal.

Her character for decency and trustworthiness stood her in good stead at this crisis. She explained her situation to some of the girls and women at the liquor establishment, persons with whom she was on good terms and whom she had assisted in one way or another at different times. More than one of these offered to share a room with her as joint-tenant; a couple even told her that she could stay with them until she got a place of her own. But her dispute with Sathyra was too new, the cause of it too common, for her to wish just then to share any other woman’s apartment. She rightly guessed that her working friends would have gentlemen coming to see them at some time or other, and this might lead to a repetition of the painful experience she had just endured.

She had another plan. She borrowed a few shillings from her friends, struck work at twelve o’clock, and went out and bought a canvas cot. Thus was a bed secured. She then went home, after engaging a man to take the cot to the yard in which she lived; arrived there, she took her scanty possessions out of the room in the presence of Father Daniel and some others (for fear she should be further accused of stealing), then went next door, where she knew there was a room to rent.

It was a tiny place, just big enough to hold her cot, a table, and a chair. These latter things she had not, but one or two boxes served to take the place they would have occupied. The rent of the room was four shillings a month; and though she could not pay this amount in advance, as was the custom, she was allowed to move in on condition that at the end of her month the money would be forthcoming.

Sathyra was relieved to find her gone, though, with the inconsistency of human nature, she regretted that Jane had shown herself so resourceful. She was still unpleasantly near, too, so that if Sampson wished to pay her attentions there was nothing to prevent him doing so. However, realising that this could not now be prevented, Sathyra shrugged her shoulders and awaited events. “If she wants to teck him, she can teck him,” she said, with fine philosophy.

But Jane did not want Mr Sampson. For the first time in her life she was thrown absolutely on her own resources. She had lived under Mrs Mason’s care, such as it was; she had shared a room with Sathyra. She had come to Kingston under Mrs Mason’s protection, and had left Mrs Mason to go under the protection of Sathyra. But now she had to depend upon herself entirely; she was her own mistress in every sense of the word. She was lonelier than she had ever been before; yet, on the other hand, she felt far more independent than she had ever done. She had her own room. All she was only a little over sixteen!

But she looked a woman. A very young woman, it is true; but not at all like a raw, growing girl. Her education and development had proceeded rapidly. She had passed through several stages of city life in a very short space of time.

She was now her own mistress—upon six shillings a week. As a domestic servant, if she had even earned three shillings a week, and been given her food, she would have been better off. She knew this, but she had no desire to return to domestic service.

. . . . .

The struggle to make two ends meet grew more severe as the weeks went by and Jane found her clothing wearing out. A Syrian packman with whom the people in the yard dealt became her special providence in that he agreed to let her have fifteen shillings’ worth of goods, to be paid for at the rate of a shilling a week. The things she took from him could have been bought for cash in any of the shops for eight or nine shillings; but, apart from having to wait till this amount should be accumulated, there would always be the temptation to spend money in hand, a temptation which Jane had already experienced and yielded to in the past. But a shilling a week for rent, and another for clothing (for some few weeks at any rate) made necessary retrenchment in her expenditure on food if she were to have anything left for picnics, car-rides, and those other forms of recreation which helped to make life pleasant to the people of her station. She managed ingeniously. Instead of continuing to take lunch from the general caterer at threepence per day, she ate bread and raw salt fish instead, or bread and fried fish, or a pint can of hominy, none of these costing more than penny-ha’-penny a day. For this change of diet she had an excuse ready: she told her fellow-workers that she did not care for cooked food during the day. This excuse, which was transparent to everyone who heard it, was accepted as if perfectly true; some of the girls even observed that they too did not think that cooked food agreed with them during the day: “it was too heavy for their chests.” Poverty created a bond of sympathy between these workers; they understood one another’s struggles well enough, and had all, more or less, to make little economies at one time or another. On her lunch, then, Jane saved ninepence a week, and she had already arranged with one of the women in the new yard to supply her with tea in the morning and with dinner for two shillings and sixpence per week.

This left her with ninepence to spend as she pleased; but the food she now ate was by no means as nourishing as that she had got from Mrs Mason, or as that which Sathyra had managed to procure. Thin soups and rice figured prominently in the weekly menu; the frequent appearance of boiled green banana~ and breadfruit recalled the diet of her earlier days; herring often took the place of salt fish, and fresh meat was a rarity. The latter she did not miss much; accustomed for so many years to “salt things,” she had not yet acquired much of a taste for fresh beef, and probably never would.

She never invited anyone into her room. She was ashamed of it. She had no furniture, and she did not want the people in the yard to know it; they knew it, of course, and one or two of them, not liking the reserve of the girl, were prepared at the first opportunity to abuse her about her poverty: one had even taken the trouble to tell a near neighbour that Jane was “as naked as a bottle.” But she made friends of others-the mothers especially-by taking a kindly and genuine interest in their little ones. Some of these women worked out as domestic servants, leaving their babies in the care of an elderly person, who was supposed to look after them and feed them at a fixed charge for each of one shilling per week. It is to be feared that these babies received but nominal attention, the old caretaker having matters of her own to attend to. As the mothers did not usually return from work before seven o’clock, and sometimes later, Jane would frequently spend an hour or so in playing with the babies, hushing them when they cried, and nursing them to sleep. Compliments were paid to her on this score.

“You is training for when y’u have you’ own baby,” laughingly said to her one evening a grateful parent; “an’ dat shouldn’t be long from now.”

“It will be long,” replied Jane, “for I wouldn’t like—” she stopped short, realising she was about to say something that might give offence.

“Y’u right,” said the woman, understanding the drift of her unfinished sentence. “It is really hard to have to work and mind a baby at de same time; but we all have to teck what come. You don’t know what you’ luck is gwine to be.”

“But we mus’ try an’ do de best we can for weself,” said Jane; “dat’s why I want to keep myself out of trouble. I like children, but what’s de use of havin’ dem if y’u can’t support dem, an’ have to work hard all de same? Don’t y’u see it’s better y’u doan’t have none?”

“Dis child’s fader gone to sea,” said the mother, by way of defence and explanation, “or it would be all right; howsoever, as it born I can’t sorry, for dat would be a sin. But you don’t wrong when you say y’u wouldn’t like to have to work and bring up you’ pickney,[1] for all de time you is at you’ work you have to be t’inking of dem, an’ sometime y’u teck an imagination and believe all sort of accident happening to demo. Dat’s why I thank you for helpin’ de old lady wid Jim.”

“Tcho! dat’s noten,” said Jane simply; then, inspired by maternal instinct and aspiration, she launched out into a statement of her ambitions for herself and her family, should she ever have one.

“Ef I had any children,” said she, “you know what I would like? I would like to have a nice little house, wid about two room, quite new and pretty; an’ I would like about four children. I doan’t t’ink 1 care for any more, for, y’u see, if you have plenty, them will give y’u a lot of boderation, but if you have just t’ree or four, you can look after them well. Then I would like me house to have some nice furniture, like what Miss Mason, de lady I was workin’ wid when I first came to Kingston, did have. I would wash de children two times every day, in de morning an’ in de evening, an’ when them grow big I would tie them hair wid blue ribban an’ teck dem out for a walk. When dem grow big, I would send them to school every day, an’ every Sunday I would send them to Sunday school. When people see them, them would ask, ‘Who children is that?’ an’ somebody might say: ‘Dem is Miss Burrell children.’ By this time, now, I am one side hearin’ de whole thing; an’ you can guess how I feel please an’ proud! I would dress whenever I go out, an’ I wouldn’t allow one of my pickney to go out into de street widout boots. When them get big, I would teach them to learn de piano—”

She was interrupted by the laughter of her listener.

“You fly high,” said the latter, “you’ head really big! Y’u want piano too!”

“Why not?” asked Jane half apologetically, but swiftly coming back to earth again. “Why can’t we black people have piano too? I would like to learn to play meself, but I know I don’t have de money, so it’s no use fretten over it. But if you can get you’ children to learn it, doan’t y’u see you would be wrong not to do it?”

“Yes; dat’s if you can do it,” said the woman, who entertained no illusions about the future. “But how you gwine to do it? We poor people mus’ praise God if we can get a bread.” She paused to kiss her little boy all over his face, to which caress he responded by slobbering hers all over with saliva. “I am satisfy,” she continued, “ef I can teach Jim a trade when him grow big. If it hard to meck a livin’ now, it may be worse hard by-and-by. But of course you young, so you can believe a lot o’ t’ings if y’u like.”

The moonlight streamed down upon the yard, throwing into relief every part of it, revealing the dilapidated fence, the ramshackle row of rooms, the little superior two-roomed cottage on the other side of the yard, the odds and ends of things scattered about. The poverty of the place stood confessed, and Jane, seated on a box by the threshold of her friend’s room, had before her eyes the material evidence of the sort of life which the most of her class must live. Not improbably, some of them had dreamt dreams such as hers; their fancy had been as free. But they had come to this, and their fate, if not accepted without an occasional protest, was nevertheless accepted, and not deemed too unhappy by them.

“I wonder why black people so poor?” she asked—a question identical with that she had put to her mother many months before.

“Dat is what nobody can tell,” returned Jim’s mother. “P’rhaps it’s because when slavery was goin’ on, de white people teck everyting. Them have all de land an’ all de house, while poor we have noten, an’ have to work hard for a bread.”

“My fader have land, too,” observed Jane proudly, “and ef it wasn’t dat I want to be independent, I could go back home. But him didn’t get it for noten like de white people. Him buy it.”

“Y’u better off than poor buckra,”[2] said the other woman. “Your pupa might leave a piece of land for y’u; den perhaps you can get you’ piano,” and again she laughed a little at Jane’s ambition.

“I doan’t expect noten,” answered Jane. “Pupa have oder children, an’ me big brother may get everything when him come back home from Colon. I have to look for meself, an’ I not going to throw meself away like I see some other gurls doin’.”

“You right, me love,” sighed the older woman, carefully rising with the little Jim, who was now asleep in her arms. She regarded Jane as a visionary who would soon realise the folly of wishing for impossibilities.

“Your life is long, an’ you have a good job. But ef you didn’t have one y’u wouldn’t talk so. Poor people caan’t talk ’bout piano. It’s enough if dem can get a bread.”

Jane told her good-night, not in the least offended by her outspokenness. Down at the place where she worked the girls talked much as she herself had been doing: they were all looking forward to better times. She preferred their view of the future to that of Jim’s mother.

. . . . .

There were others in the yard besides this woman to whom Jane was something of a puzzle. They could not understand why she should prefer to live by herself; they said “she had heart,” and in that they said truth. It required courage to do as she did; but behind that courage was vanity, the desire to attract attention and to shine in the eyes of those who knew her.

Next door was Sathyra; so when Jane went out she took good care not even to glance in the direction of her late residence. Similarly, Sathyra pretended as if no such person as Jane existed when they chanced to pass each other in the street. Yet Sathyra knew all about Jane that was to be gleaned by apparently casual inquiry, and Father Daniel kept Jane informed as to how life went with Sathyra, the old man’s method of conveying information being through the fence which separated the two yards, a wooden fence some parts of which had here and there fallen away through old age and the activities of industrious young people searching for small bits of firewood. Father Daniel had taken a fancy to Jane, and so had his wife; both more than once invited her to come over and sit with them of an evening. But Sathyra lived in that yard, and Jane could not forget that charge of theft which (as she believed) might have sent her to the prison if she had not had friends who took her part against Sathyra. She feared as well as disliked Sathyra. As for Mr Sampson, she hardly gave him a thought.

That gentleman had been told by Sathyra when next he saw her that Jane had stolen her money and gone about her business. He had shaken his head sorrowfully at the news, declared his belief that there was no limit to the depravity of girls from the country, and concluded in his own mind that Sathyra had robbed Jane, and driven her from the premises. He took care not to inquire where Jane might be, for he knew Sathyra would not tell him the truth; he accepted the situation, feeling that his friendship with Sathyra would not be of long duration~ For, it her aim was to “eat him out,” his object was to avoid being eaten out; and in these circumstances harmonious relations were impossible.

It was Father Daniel who brought the news of the final separation between Sampson and his “intended” to Jane one evening. He gave it through the fence, about six weeks after Jane had set up as an independent tenant.

“De young man leave dat gal dat did say you tief her money,” said the old man to her. “Dem had a big row last night, an’ I thoughted she was goin’ to. beat him. She say that all him give her since she know him is one ten shillin’s, and dat if him ever venture to come back to her place she will dash him wid hot water. So y’u see, me child, dat God revenge y’u. Trust to Him, an’ leave everyt’ing to Him, an’ you will be all right.” Jane heard the news with genuine delight. Sathyra would miss her now, just as (she had no doubt) Mrs Mason missed her still.

Thus the weeks slipped into months, and by the end of the third month Jane felt she had had more than enough of the life she was living. She was sick, weary, unutterably tired of her loneliness. She began to go about at nights; she attended practice dances and wakes, and at these she attracted the attention of the young men and found some pleasure in their society; but when they ventured upon intimate conversation she repulsed them. Her timidity was gone, but pride (a greater safeguard) had taken its place, and she knew well that these youths were not much better off than herself. Indeed, from her point of view of what men should earn, she considered them to be in a worse position than herself: they had little or nothing to commend them to her serious appreciation.

Sometimes she thought of her home in the country; and far away it seemed, up there amongst the mountains, half-lost, dreaming its monotonous, half-idle existence away. She wondered how her friends were getting on, what had become of her sister, whether Mrs Mason had written to tell her mother that she had run off without a word: all this she thought of at intervals, but with no regrets; she did not wish to return; and she felt that, if her people had heard what she had done, they must have accepted the fact as quite natural. She longed for change; but a going back to the old life as a country girl Was impossible now. Often she wondered if any young man would fall in love with her, not one like Cecil or Sampson, or the young fellows she knew, but some person whom she could really care for. She was looking out for a mate, though not conscious that she was doing so.

Not often now did she think of getting married. She had learnt by this—indeed, she had always more or less understood—that marriages were comparatively rare events in the life of the people, and she accepted the fact without a protest. Yet still she desired “to keep herself up,” and this feeling, now the result of pride and not any longer of the old parental admonition, prevented her from drifting into any sort of connection with anyone, even when the temptation to do so was at its strongest.

But day by day the wish for something new, for a change in her life, grew greater. She thought of removing: that at least would be something in the way of novelty. But to remove would mean the payment of a month’s rent at the end of the month, and the immediate payment of another month’s rent in advance to her new landlady. The financial obstacle was insurmountable: she had to abandon the idea. She became dejected, wretched; she grew visibly thin.

She too had come to find that for one’s respectability one often pays a price. But still she revolted against the idea of “throwing herself away.”

  1. Children. A corruption of “piccanninies,” which is itself a corruption of two Spanish words: pequefteos niftos.
  2. ”Poor buckra”; a poor white man.


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This work (Jane's Career: A Story of Jamaica by Herbert G. de Lisser) is free of known copyright restrictions.