Jane’s Career: A Story of Jamaica

Chapter 2

For some time longer the girls continued sitting near the road and discussing the future. Then Jane heard her mother calling, and rose to go. The others did likewise, Celestina going into her hut to attend to some little matter she had neglected, while Mary and Elizabeth went towards a small coffee plantation where they had engaged to spend the rest of the afternoon in cleaning coffee, thus earning threepence each.

When Jane presented herself at the door of her mother’s house, she was asked by the latter to go and assist her brother, who was just then attending to the “ground.” She nodded and turned away in the direction of what appeared to be a gully, and began clambering down the rather steep sides of it in a manner that would have meant a broken limb to anyone not well accustomed to such exercises. At the bottom of the declivity she found her brother, who was digging yam holes with a hoe, and he directed her to plant the yams as soon as he had finished each hole. This she proceeded to do, squatting herself on the ground, covering up the yam roots with her bare hands (into which a splinter of wood would endeavour, not successfully, to force itself every now and then), dragging herself from hole to hole, and enduring the sun—most terrible at this hour—as though it did not exist.

“Whoy!” exclaimed her brother, after the last hole had been dug, “it hot, sah!” He wiped the perspiration from his brow with the dirty shirt sleeve of his right arm, and, leaning on his hoe, watched his sister as she heaped earth upon the last of the roots. Presently he produced a crushed cigarette from the inner recesses of his shirt bosom, struck a light, puffed the weed, and waited for Jane to get up.

“You gwine to Kingston,’ to-morrow,” he observed stolidly, “an’ I are soon going to go away meself. Just as cheap,[1] for dere is not much for a man to do here. Dis little field is stuppidness for a man like me, an’ it’s no use learnin’ trade, fo’ y’u can’t meck a livin’ by it. Dere is not a praperty round here dat can give a man plenty o’ work an’ pay him good money. Jamaica is a dyamn poor country, an’ everybody teck an’ advantage of a man! In fac’, even ef I could get a good job here I doan’t t’ink I would stop. Y’u finish?”

Jane signified that she had, and heaved herself up from the ground with a jerk. She struck her hands against one another to brush off the particles of earth that stuck to them, then, with her brother, began to toil up the side of the declivity towards the house.

“I hope the dyamn tiefs in dis place won’t rob me yam before dem is even ripe,” the young man grumbled. “Y’u can’t plant noten but somebody come at night-time an’ rob it fram y’u! Well, when y’u go to Kingston, Jane, y’u mustn’t forget we up here.”

“No,” she answered briefly; then the hut reached, her brother flung himself down on the ground in front of it and stretched himself out to sleep, drawing his tattered cap over his face, his day’s work being entirely over. Jane sauntered towards a little thatched bamboo structure with three sides and no door, the sides themselves being full of holes, and, entering, began to assist her mother in the preparation of the family’s dinner. First she took a pail and went to the stream for water. The stream was near; in a few moments she returned with the water, and pouring some of it into a shallow round tin pan, rather battered and rusty, she flopped down on the ground, opened her legs wide, placed the pan between them, and began pealing a large bunch of green bananas that lay within easy reach of her hands. With the aid of a short, strong knife she tore the tough skin off the vegetables: this task took her a little time, for she did not hurry. She hummed a hymn as she worked, while her mother also peeled and cut up a breadfruit, and a very small bit of yam. When the peeling was over, the food was put to boil on a fire made up on the ground; and Jane’s mother left the kitchen and went into the hut, where, from a cupboard in the bedroom, she took a parcel of salt fish, selected a part of it, and returned. This, with a little cocoa-nut oil, would form the relish of the family’s dinner, which would be ready in another hour, when the younger children would be back from school.

“Where pupa gone to?” asked Jane, while her mother was making up another fire on the earth floor of the kitchen.

“Him gone to Mister Brown place to chop some wood; it’s a ninepence worth of work.”

“But Mister Brown didn’t pay him de las’ time him work for him?”

“No, him say him will pay de money te-day. Him didn’t have it las’ Saturday.”

“Sometime y’u can’t get noten to do,” Jane observed, “and den, when y’u get a little jobs for a pence or so, y’u can’t get you’ money. Dat’s why I glad I gwine to Kingston. Dere is plenty of money dere.”

“Yes,” returned her mother philosophically, “but it belong to white people.”

“Everyting belong to white people,” said Jane, “and brown people. We only have de leavings.”

“Well, what to do?” asked her philosophical mother. “God mus’ know why Him meek black people poor, an’ He will provide. We mus’ trust to Him. Dat’s why, when you is in Kingston, Jane, y’u mustn’t fo’get you’ church. An’ y’u must be respectful to de lady dat is employin’ y’u, an’ do you’ work well. For ef y’u lose dat situation, I don’t know what y’u will do.”

“Dat is all right,” returned Jane. “I will do me best. I gwine inside now to pack up me clothes.”

The process of packing her clothes was not a long one, for the simple reason that her personal possessions were few. One good white dress for Sundays and gala days, two coarse print frocks like the one she wore, some underclothing—a very limited stock—and a pair of shoes and stockings completed the inventory of her wardrobe. The shoes and stockings she lingered lovingly over. Only on Sundays, when she went to church, and on other special occasions, did they make their appearance, and then she walked about proudly though with difficulty, for her feet were unaccustomed to confinement. When she had tied these few things into a bundle, she went to the door of the hut, and there stood in the opening gazing into vacancy, while the lengthening shadows of the trees showed that the sun was now rapidly sloping to the west.

Her two younger brothers and her sister came home while she stood there, her elder brother awoke and wandered off somewhere down the. road; then her mother called to her from the kitchen. The dinner was ready; it was shared out in little shallow tin plates and pudding pans for the women folk, but the men’s portion was left in the kitchen to keep warm until they should come home.

The children dined in the open air, while Jane and her mother remained in the kitchen, and ate their meal. While they were eating, the father, accompanied by his son, who had met him on the way, came in; they sat down to the table to eat their dinner out of the earthenware plates and with knives; and as they ate they discussed the trivial incidents of the day, the poor price paid for labour, the difficulty of securing regular employment, the prevalence of prædial thieves. The older man accepted all these things as a matter of course, the younger one grumbled. After both had eaten, the son lighted a crushed cigarette—all his cigarettes presented the same emaciated appearance—and went out to pay his respects to a lady residing some miles away, while his father, after drinking a little rum, lighted a clay pipe stuffed with coarse tobacco, and remained seated by the table smoking and’ digesting his food.

The day was over in the village. The darkness fell softly and quickly; people now passed up and down the road going from their work to their homes, or on long journeys, during which they would travel all the night. The azure of the evening sky deepened into deep dark blue. A few faint stars trembled above. Others peeped forth, then others, and a great moon, with just an attendant silver cloud or two, sailed slowly over the mountains, over the tree tops, touching the earth below into ineffable beauty. Lights twinkled from the few huts on either side of the road, lights from little kerosene glass lamps set upon tables. The village shop was bright, and there, as it served as a sort of club for the social persons of the village, about half a dozen men assembled to listen to the -shopkeeper discoursing on the Government and the Parochial Board, and the tax on land, and the women he had met some time before in Nicaragua.

Near to the shop some of the younger folk of the village forgathered; one young man had a guitar, and this he thrumbed to a melancholy air and with no regard for time. The boys teased the girls, using their hands to touch them often; at which times, whenever a girl received a poke from an adventurous finger, she would exclaim “You!” but showed she rather liked it by not making any endeavour to get out of her tormentor’s way. A score of meagre dogs made their appearance and occasionally added the noise of their barking to the noise of the guitar, being lazily chastised with stones for this interruption by one or two of the company. Jane joined this group, among whom were two of the friends she had met that forenoon; and again the subject of conversation was her approaching departure to Kingston.

“You soon begin to call us ‘mountain people,’” remarked the owner of the guitar, stopping in the midst of a weird strain to make this remark, and referring to the well-known contempt which those who dwell in the capital have for those who live in the country districts.

“Hi, no!” replied Jane. “I wouldn’t be so ungrateful. Don’t I born in de country too? It would be foolish of me to form like I did born in Kingston. I am not like dat.”

“Dat’s what y’u say now,” returned the guitar player; “but I know Kingston, and I know what gals that leave de country an’ go to Kingston always do. Dem is not there a week before dem begin to show off themself, an’ rock their body ‘pon a man when them see him is from de country. Ask Celestina.”

“Dat is true,” said Celestina, pleased to be appealed to on any matter touching the life and manners of the capital. “I used to do it meself, an’ why not? You country buoy is not like Kingstonian. Y’u is too scaly.[2] You don’t have a penny in you’ pocket! A young man in Kingston, ef him meet y’u anywhere, will offer y’u a car-drive, first t’ing. But you don’t have a farden to give anybody. Y’u don’t ‘ave sufficient to feed you’self. All you lookin’ for now is to get what y’u can out of we. Dat’s why I can’t bodder stay up here. Jane, me love, y’u wi’ see me in Kingston soon, y’u hear?”

“All right; I will look out for y’u. But I not gwine to fo’get me people up here all de same,” replied Jane brightly.

“I hopes not,” said the guitar player, whose tone of voice suggested that what he hoped and what he expected were miles apart: “As fo’ what Celes say, I doan’t say she is wrong, for I doan’t have anyt’ing to give anybody; an’ if she fink she can get anyfing out of me, she lie! All she want is easy livin’. But what anybody ever of a Kingston man? Dem only have words to give y’u. Dem trust their trousers, an’ trust yellow boots, an’ dem walk ’bout as if dem was gentleman. Dem have more pickney[3] dan dem have finger, an’ dem can’t support one of them. Up here it better; y’u can always get a banana; but in Kingston, if y’u doan’t have no money—Lard! it better y’u dead! Dat’s why I sorry fo’ Jane.”

“But what y’u sorry for me for?” demanded Jane indignantly. “I don’t want you’ sympathy. You an’ me is not company.”

“Y’u see how she begin a’ready?” remarked the guitar player triumphantly. “She is abusin’ me before she even go to Kingston.” He spat upon the ground, dug into the earth with the great toe of his right foot, then resumed his playing, while he sang, the words being “Lard! not a light, not a bite; what a Saturday night!” and the whole song being intended to depict the misery to which Jane would be reduced shortly after her arrival in Kingston.

“Don’t mind him, me child,” said Celestina; “I know Kingston better dan him; an’ de trute is, him is jealous of de Kingston young man. When him go to town him put on boots for de firs’ time, an’ as him don’t used to walk in boots, dem know him is a mountain man an’ laugh at him. Dat is why him abuse dem!”

This speech provoked the group to laughter, but apparently left the guitar player undisturbed. He merely remarked, “All right! You wait till y’u get a beaten from one o’ dem Kingston buoy, an’ y’u will sing a different tune”; then he proceeded with the song depicting the misery of a penniless Saturday night.

“I gwine to wear boots often,” said Jane, feeling that as she alone was going to Kingston, it was incumbent upon her to set forth her programme of life for the admiration of her friends.

“Up here it don’t necessary, but in Kingston y’u have to dress.”

“Dat is what I would like,” said a girl who had hitherto taken no part in the conversation. “Y’u know how y’u feel when y’u put on a nice frock an’ a high-heel pair o’ boots, and know dat everybody admirin’ y’u? Dat is why I like go to church! Everybody can see y’u.”

In a similar strain the talk continued for another hour, most of the girls saying the same things over and over again. It was Jane’s last night in the village, and she enjoyed this final reunion immensely. Even on so special an occasion, however, she would not allow any of the young men to take liberties with her, telling those who attempted to touch her that “she didn’t want any ‘hand’s play,’ for she was a decent girl.” The shop had long been shut for the night when the party of companions broke up, all Jane’s friends telling her good-bye, and arranging to come and see her if chance should lead them to Kingston.

It was about ten o’clock when she went to bed. The hut she slept in happened to be floored—many of the houses in the village were not—and a mat with a few rags spread upon the floor of the room in which her parents slept constituted the bedding of herself and her younger brothers and sisters. Her parents occupied the bed in the room; her brother slept on the wooden couch in the outer room. She quickly undressed, not even noticing the two or three large spiders that hung upon the wall just above where she was to sleep. She knew they would not go out of their way to bite her, while for her to kill them would mean (she was persuaded) the certainty of her breaking an immense amount of crockery for some time after. She undressed quickly (she had already washed her feet in a little water outside the hut), put on a soiled garment which served her for weeks at a time as nightdress, lay down beside her sister and brothers, and promptly fell asleep. That there was no ventilation whatever in the overcrowded room did not in the least inconvenience her.

Outside the stillness was intense: even the dogs had retired. The moon held empire above, the trees were bathed in that wonderful green and silver light which almost turned night to day. The village slept the sleep of the righteous, though righteousness was not amongst the virtues on which it would have particularly prided itself. Not until about five o’clock in the morning did it awaken, to resume once more the monotonous and trivial duties of the day.

Jane was up with the earliest. A bit of the breadfruit left over from yesterday’s dinner, and toasted by her mother, and a mug of tea made from a sweet smelling shrub which grew near the hut, formed her morning meal. She hastily gulped this down while standing at the threshold of the hut; then tied her head with a bright-coloured “Madrass” headkerchief, balanced the bundle containing her clothes on top of this, and said good-bye. There were tears in her mother’s eyes, and she herself felt a tightening in her chest. Her face became drawn, but she did not break down, not being by any means of a weak and maudlin disposition. The whole family accompanied her to where the road formed the boundary of their property, and as she started upon her way her father again reminded her that she must “keep herself up.” She nodded in reply, set her lips tight, and swung down the road with the free, springing step of the Jamaica peasant woman; in a few moments a bend in the road took her out of sight of hut and family.

She had about four miles to walk before she would reach the house where was the lady who was to take her to Kingston, and she had promised to be there by seven o’clock. She knew she had plenty of time, but did not on that account lessen her rate of speed. Now and then as she walked she would call out a shrill good-bye, to the trees as one would have thought who did not know the locality, and was not aware that hidden behind the thick foliage and the underbush were houses where friends and acquaintances lived.

On either hand the forest ran, the ground often rising steeply into lofty eminences. Part of the road was in shadow, the sun not yet having climbed high enough to flood every inch of the countryside with its living light. But already the freshness of the morning was wearing away, and as she walked she saw the big green lizards chasing their prey across the ground, and amongst the trees she heard the birds piping and calling to one another. Frequently, for a little while, the entire way would be plunged in semi-darkness; this was when the great trees, bending over on either side, intermingled their branches, thus forming a leafy, roof which caught and intercepted the rays of the rapidly rising sun.

Sometimes the forest would end upon the right hand or the left, the roadside would break away into sheer precipice, and a great stretch of green and fertile country, flooded with warm and golden light, would spread out into the distance for miles and miles, until it merged itself into yet more distant hills and radiant blue sky. Tiny settlements would glisten far below, the white-washed walls of the huts and houses reflecting the rays of the sun. The land rose and fell into little hills and valleys; here the predominating colour was yellow, there it was soft emerald; here it was dark gray in the shadow of a great mountain, there it blazed with every variety of green, intermingled with scarlet. Slender palms and tremendous silk-cotton trees stood out singly upon the sides of the precipice, their roots twisted and twined in the loose limestone rock, their fronds and leaves flashing back the light that beat upon them. Thin columns of smoke could be seen, the spirals of them dissolving slowly into the circumambient air; smoke from peasants’ fires either in the villages or from some open hill-side where one or two wayfarers cooked their morning meal. There were many cultivations too, little fields of bananas, patches of potato, squares and oblongs of yams, the vines of these climbing on poles and showing a yellowish tint. And occasionally the bare brown earth stood out in relief against its borders of green, where it had been burnt and cleaned for cultivation, or where some landslide had lately taken place.

And over the whole arched the magnificent concave of glowing sky, and about it all hung the silence of the great encircling mountains.

Such scenes were familiar to Jane, and roused her admiration not at all. She hardly glanced to right or left as she trudged on; never once did she reflect that she was leaving all this, which had formed part of her life as far back as she could remember, and leaving it perhaps for ever. Sturdily she footed it until she reached the place where her future mistress was staying. It was something more than a village, though not quite a town. She knocked at the gate of a small stone house with a garden in front of it, then timidly entered when bidden to do so by some one concealed behind a green jalousie window. When she closed the gate behind her, she, so to speak, closed the chapter of her earlier life. She had now ceased to be a country girl. She had become the employee of a city dweller, a member of the large army of West Indian domestics.

  1. “Just as well.” The Jamaica peasant uses the word “cheap” in preference to “well.”
  2. Mean.
  3. Children.


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