Jane’s Career: A Story of Jamaica

Chapter 15

In Jane’s yard the monotony of life was broken mainly by births, deaths, removals, and the coming of new tenants; deaths were on the whole rare events, the coming and going of tenants were the commonest. The migratory instinct was strong in the people; some of them would live for three or four years in the same yard, then suddenly there would come upon them a strong inclination to seek new quarters, and during the next year or so they would remove two or three times before settling down in one place once more for another term of years.

The little two-roomed cottage in the yard had been empty for quite a little time, it being of the nature of an aristocratic residence, at a rental of fifteen shillings a month. It had been inhabited by a superior family of four, who had occupied it for some years and had removed a month or so before Jane went to live in the yard. That it was to be rented again (as Jane now heard) did not interest her in the slightest; for she knew that its occupant or occupants would not give her a second thought, considering that her room was the smallest in the yard, and the worst furnished.

What did concern her was the illness of Jim, the baby whom she most cared to nurse and look after when she came home from work. What ailed him was not positively known: the people in the yard said he had marasma, a generic term which they applied to all forms of disease which they were unable to determine more particularly. And in truth it was a wasting away from which the little fellow suffered: either he had eaten too much dirt in his peregrinations about the yard, or his daily meals of condensed milk and cornmeal pap had not agreed with him, or too many malarial mosquitoes had feasted on him, or, perhaps, a combination of cornmeal pap, dirt, and malarial mosquitoes had proved too much for him.

Whatever the cause or causes of his ailment, he was very ill, and the women in the yard, awakened to sincere sympathy, gravely shook their heads over his condition and prophesied the worst. On the other hand, his mother hoped for the best, talked of taking him to the hospital, made up her mind to take him to the parish doctor, put off doing so, applied home remedies, and refused to believe that he would not shortly get well. But Jim only worsened, and then, for a whole week, his mother had to remain at home with him (having put some one in her place to do her work at the house where she was employed). The child died early on a Saturday morning, in its mother’s arms, and the yard was informed of the death by the wailing of the poor woman. Jane was amongst the first to offer sympathy and to enter into consultation as to how the burial was to be arranged.

It was understood that the mother had no money: it was also understood that she did not-wish to beg for her little boy a pauper’s coffin and grave.

“I doan”t blame her,” said one of the women standing in the group which discussed this latest phase of events in the yard. “She not a pauper, for she been workin’ all de time, an’ she never beg anybody noten. An’ when you go an’ ask de city for anyt’ing, you have to answer all sort of question, so dat, ef y’u doan’t have de grace of God in you’ heart, you can’t keep you’ temper.”

“Then what she goin’ to do?” inquire Jane, who knew better than anyone else the straitened circumstances of the bereaved mother. “She don’t get no mone dis week, as she doan’t work. She have to pay de person she put in her place.”

The group considered the problem in silence. A pauper’s grave, like the almshouse, shocked their sense of pride: it was the ultimate misfortune.

“P’rhaps we could help her,” Jane suggested timidly “How much de funeral will cost?”

“Not much,” said a man who was preparing to leave for his work. “She can get a grave fo’ four shillin’s, an a few other things wouldn’t cost more than another five or six shillin’s. I have a few piece of board in me room,” he continued, after a brief pause, “and when I come home this evening I will knock up a little coffin for her.”

He was a carpenter by trade, and the coffin was to be his contribution to the funeral. A murmur of appreciation followed him as he went through the gate.

“I can give—” Jane stopped a moment to reflect how much she could afford to contribute. “I will give a shillin’,” she decided, and it was felt generally that her offer was a generous one.

Thus the hat went round, some giving sixpence, some threepence, and by this means four shillings were collected. It was then that attention was concentrated upon the new tenant of the two-roomed house in a most favourable manner. He had moved in but three days before and had proved to be quite a young man, not more than twenty-five years of age; and as he had taken a separate house and brought no one with him, the other tenants had concluded that he was either about to get married or was unusually extravagant. Being approached timidly by Jane on behalf of little Jim’s funeral expenses (with apologies, for he was still a stranger), he surprised everyone by donating four shillings to the fund. All eyes were fixed upon him as he made his way to the gate, and he was well aware that his generosity had made him a marked man and a power in the yard. He had completely eclipsed the carpenter, for ready money counted for more than labour and odd bits of material in the minds of these people. “Him is a gentleman,” emphatically proclaimed an elderly woman after he had left, and that was also the opinion of the others.

Jim’s mother was already well aware of what was going on, and, though deeply grief-stricken, she nevertheless felt her importance as an object of commiseration and sympathy, and took no part in the collection of funds. Jane it was who was left to manage that branch of the business; and she too became so pleased with the important function she discharged that she undertook to buy the baby’s shroud during the day, and take the body to the cemetery. She got down to work late that morning, and had to explain the reason to Mr Curden.

“It is your baby?” he pleasantly asked her, reverting to his former friendly manner. “You know it is not,” she replied, tossing her head; “y’u only say dat to say something.”

“What I have to say to you is more important than that,” he murmured confidentially. “A girl like you shouldn’t be livin’ in a common yard. Besides, I hear it isn’t true that you live with you’ parents. Why you tell me an untruth like that?”

So he had found out the truth! Jane answered nothing, and Curden laughed. She suspected that he had been questioning the inquiring, loquacious Chichi (which was true). She also felt that the knowledge he had obtained was indubitably power.

However, it was much that he had made no fuss about her being an hour late for work, and in Jim’s mother and her poverty she had an object lesson which she was not slow to understand. Where was the baby’s father? Curden at any rate was a man on the spot, a man who could not easily disappear and leave no trace behind. But she did not think long upon this matter. To wait until what should happen did happen was a less disturbing line of conduct.

. . . . .

At lunch-time she bought the bit of lawn that was to make Jim’s shroud, and that evening, while the kindly carpenter was making the little coffin, she and another young woman in the yard made a shroud. The baby was to be buried the next morning, the mother having arranged about the grave during the day: the body lay in the room under a sheet and covered with pieces of ice; the door and the windows of the room stood open, and a few chairs scattered about the yard proclaimed the intention of some of the people to sit up with Jim’s mother as a token of sympathy and as a means of passing a night in pleasant companionship and in the luxury of a grief not their own.

To-morrow was Sunday. To-night, therefore, they were not obliged to sleep. This was not to be a regular wake, for the dead one was but a baby after all, and the mother could afford no refreshment; but it was pleasant to sit and talk, to sympathise, to deplore the hard lot of the poor, to reflect aloud that in heaven all would be reunited, and that there would be no night there, no weeping, no parting, no care, no want. Occasionally they would sing a hymn, quietly (for it was only a baby that was dead), and it was while they were in the midst of this exercise that the gentleman who had so generously given four shillings that morning towards the expenses Jim’s funeral entered the yard.

Vincent Broglie was not proud. Although in the receipt of thirty-five shillings a week and known at the job printing office at which he worked as an expert compositor and a steady workman, standing next to the foreman; although brown in complexion (even if somewhat plain-looking), and always well-dressed, as became a man who earned as much as thirty-five shillings a week, he did not give himself airs. His face was frank in expression, he was open-handed; consequently he was a favourite with a large number of young ladies, on whom he lavished all his spare cash. He had taken the two-roomed house in the yard, not because he was about to get married (as some of the tenants had erroneously supposed), but because he liked to treat himself well and loved to make a show. Coming in now and finding a number of persons assembled at something like a function, he stopped and said good-evening pleasantly, whereupon one of the men rose and offered him his seat. Vincent took it as the singing ceased, and a moment he found himself regarded as the acknowledged though undeclared president of the gathering, as a gentleman to be treated with respect.

“When the burial going to take place?” he asked, more for the sake of saying something than because he really wanted information.

“To-morrow morning at seven, sir,” some one answered him. “As it dead soon this mornin’, it have to bury soon to-morrow.”

“The mother going to the funeral?” he next asked.

“No, sir.” After a moment’s hesitation his informant added: “I doan’t think she have sufficient good things to wear.”

“She beg me teck it to the cemetery in a ‘bus,” said Jane, “but I doan’t want to go by meself. Somebody else will have to go wid me.”

No one seemed disposed to undertake this duty; at any rate, no one offered to do so.

“She doan’t have no relative in Kingston,” pursued Jane, “so of course we have to do what we can to assist her. She in de room cryin’, and she is right to cry, for it was a nice little baby, an’ if it did live it would have turned out good. However, we can only say, ‘Thy will be done.’”

This pious sentiment met with warm approval from those who heard it, which induced Jane to ask once more, “But who will go to de burial ground wid me?”

Vincent was a man of impulses, and his natural tendency to sudden inspirations was much strengthened at that moment by the glass of whisky he had had shortly before going home. He had greatly facilitated by four shillings the respectable burying of Jim; he saw himself treated just then as the chief personage of the yard; one to be respectfully addressed and deferred to. Hence, acting on a thought which occurred to him as Jane ceased, he blurted out:—

“I will go to the funeral.”

He had a fondness for funerals—so had all his friends and acquaintances, so had all the people in the yard; so have all, or nearly all, the people of Jamaica, as a matter of fact; though it is a fondness for the funeral of a grown-up person as a rule, a funeral with a hearse, a decorated coffin, a parson preceding, and several cabs and buggies bringing up the rear. A baby’s funeral, if the baby’s parents are poor, is a simple, unspectacular sort of affair, and really not worth while attending from the of view of personal exhibition and social enjoyment. Ordinarily, Vincent would not have thought of following this one, much less of assisting prominently at it. But circumstances had suddenly led him to make the offer, which Jane proudly and gladly accepted the moment it was made.

No sooner were the words spoken than regretted the utterance of them. He was somewhat gratified at the same time, however, by the chorus of praise which greeted his magnanimous offer. Two persons immediately ran to tell Jim’s mother of the great good fortune that was to be Jim’s on the following morning, and that lady came forth herself to thank him humbly and respectfully. He went to bed soon after, leaving the others discussing his wonderful merits; and early on Sunday morning, faithful to his promise, he was up and dressed in full black. Jane had attired herself in a nice, neat white dress (for which a Syrian packman had not yet been fully paid), and a white straw hat. One of the women lent her a bit of black ribbon to wear as a sash; and very becoming she looked as she took her place in the one-horse cab that was to form the funeral cortège.

As the coffin was lifted out from the yard to the cab, there was a sympathetic hush on the part of everyone. Accustomed as these people were to death, it lost nothing of its awe and solemnity for them when the last leave-taking came to be made. The sobs of the mother touched them to silence; one or two stole to her side to comfort her. Tears stood in Jane’s eyes, and Vincent himself, endeavouring to look calm and unconcerned, had a straitened, somewhat foolish expression on his face. He took his seat in the cab beside Jane; one-half of the coffin rested on the vacant seat which Jane faced, the other end of it pressed against her knees and was thus prevented from slipping. A few loiterers in the lane looked on with sober countenances, the men silently taking off their hats. Then the cabman lifted his reins, and at a funeral pace the horse moved off towards the burial ground.

The public grave-digger committed Jim’s body to the earth, and the public reader consigned his little soul to God. Then, their task completed, Jane and Vincent re-entered the cab and were briskly driven back in the direction of the yard. They had talked but little on their journey to the cemetery, a serious demeanour being requisite on such an occasion. But now they laughed and chattered and enjoyed the ride, and Vincent even joked about the part he had played in this burial, and said how highly amused his friends would be when he should tell them about it. Jane felt that this was one of the treats of her life; she was proud to be driving in a cab, proud to be driving with such a person, proud that he didn’t think himself too good to be seen in public with her; and her laughing face showed her pleasure. They were not far from home when, turning a corner, and still chatting gaily, they had to pull up quickly to allow a car to pass. Both Jane and Vincent stared at the people in the car. Amongst the passengers, and looking full at her and her companion, was Mr Curden, Jane’s admirer and chief.


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