Jane’s Career: A Story of Jamaica

Chapter 3

Jane came to Kingston by the great northern road, the road that begins at the edge of Kingston’s waterfront, runs through the entire length of the town, turns a little to the west, and then, a few miles farther, begins to climb the hills until, at certain places along its course, the traveller can turn and see in the distance the white-and-green city that he has 1eft behind him, dozing and baking in the sun.

A dilapidated buggy brought her. She sat in front with the coachman, holding herself very upright and still, partly through timidity, partly through fear of the hard-featured mistress who sat behind her. Jane stood in awe of her mistress. That lady intended that she should, for it was an article of faith with her that kindness and affection bestowed upon a member of the servant class was so much virtue wasted. She was a stoutish person of yellow complexion and self-confident air, and possessed of a rather shrill voice. She was a widow, and had no children, but her nephew and two nieces lived with her; and to perform all the household work of this family of four she had two servants, one a grown woman employed at 3s. a week, with “feeding,” and a schoolgirl, who, in the present instance, was Jane.

All the way down from Constant Spring to the city Jane experienced sensations which one might suppose would be felt by a child in wonderland. She had never seen such large houses before; in a vague sort of way she wondered how many hundreds of persons lived in them, so spacious did the villas of the Kingston gentry appear to her unsophisticated eyes. Then there was the wonder of the electric-cars, things she had often heard of, but which she had never been able to imagine in any kind of way. When she came to where the road ended and the long street proper began, her amazement further increased. The numerous little shops, the houses standing close to one another, the bustle of the street, the number of people she saw moving in all directions, or lazily leaning against doors and fences, or squatting on the edges of sidewalks and wherever else they could find a seat—she had never thought that so many buildings and persons could be seen at one time; and the farther on she went the more did she become impressed with the greatness of the city in which she had come to live. For at every crossing, on looking to the right or to the left, was the same endless vista of houses, and everywhere were cabs and carts and people, and once or twice a bellowing motor car rushed past with a speed which seemed to her to rival that of lightning.

What a place Kingston was! Celestina was right; there was nothing like this in the country. She felt awed, frightened, depressed: lonely too, for she was a stranger in a strange land. A vague regret that she had come took possession of her; all the confidence she had felt the day before, when, in the little village among the hills, she had talked with her friends about her future life-all her confidence had left her. The feeling of which she was now mainly conscious was that of being confused. She had seen so many new and strange things within an hour! When the buggy, turning to the right, drew up before a little brick-and-wood single story house in Heywood Street, and she was told by her mistress to descend and help to take the parcels out of the trap, she climbed down into the street mechanically, seized hold of the parcel which the coachman shoved into her hands, and then stood waiting, completely at a loss what next to do.

“Go and knock at the door,” Mrs Mason commanded, and she did as she was told. The door was opened by an untidy-looking black woman of about twenty-six years of age, who hurriedly came down the steps into the street with a pretence of gladness at her mistress having returned. Jane, not yet knowing what to do, stood where she was, with the parcel in her hands, awaiting further orders.

“Are you going to stay there all day?” Mrs Mason asked. “Why don’t you take the bundle inside and come back?”

“I see what it is going to be already,” was her muttered comment on Jane’s stupidity. “I am going to ‘ave trouble. Well, Sarah” (to the servant), “how is everything since I leave? I suppose you mash up all me crockery?”

“No, missis, everyt’ing all right,” answered Sarah. “How y’u enjie you’self, ma’am? Y’u looking weIll Glad you came back, ma’am.”

By the time this speech was delivered (the insincerity of which was quite apparent to Mrs Mason) Sarah had taken hold of two or three of the bundles in the buggy, Jane had returned for the two small boxes, and Mrs Mason had begun to ascend the steps which led to the doorway of her house. The door opened into what Mrs Mason called her drawing-room, a room about fifteen feet square, furnished with three American yellow cane-seated rocking chairs, four black Austrian steambent chairs, a small marble-topped table (which stood in the centre), two small mahogany tables which were arranged opposite to each other against the walls, and a horsehair sofa of uncertain age and dingy appearance. Hung on the walls of the little room were coloured prints framed with gold moulding, and two enlarged photographs, one of the late Mr Mason and one of his widow. Just below these was an illuminated card with the motto, “God Bless Our Home.” A large mantelpiece, on which were some ornaments, was the most showy article of furniture in the room.

It happened that Jane, looking about for a suitable place on which to deposit the bundle she had carried inside, had decided on one of the mahogany tables. This was unfortunate, for the bundle contained, among other things, a can of “wet sugar”; and some of this sugar had leaked out of the can and through the cloth. Sarah, with more experience, had taken her parcels through the drawing-room and into what served as the dining-room, where she had placed them on the floor. Mrs Mason being the last to enter the house (which she did slowly, with the thoughtful intention of allowing her neighbours to notice her return in state) was met midway in the drawing-room by Sarah, who was returning to relieve her of the hat box she carried; and both Sarah and herself saw the sugar-laden bundle on the table at the same time. Mrs Mason was scandalised. Her voice took on an extra degree of shrillness as she loudly asked Jane what she meant by what she had done. Sarah frantically echoed her cry. She did more: she hurried to the table, and, discovering the stain made by the moist sugar, uttered an exclamation of horror and immediately called her mistress’s attention to the awful circumstance.

If Mrs Mason was scandalised a moment before, she was now thunderstruck. The new girl, the girl that had come to her with such a good character from her mother, and who was being given such an excellent start in life, had not been a moment in the house before she had begun to act with the customary wilful and malicious carelessness of all former schoolgirls!

“Jane,” she piped shrilly, “do you see what you have done?”

“But what y’u mean by destroying de lady furniture?” was another question immediately put to Jane by Sarah, whose indignation apparently could not be contained.

Jane was sublimely unconscious of having done anything wrong. Her wish had been to do what was right; and as in her own home she would certainly have placed a parcel on a table, no matter if it contained silk or green bananas, she could not immediately realise the nature of her offence. She merely knew that she was being taxed with some misdemeanour or other, and as some sort of answer was clearly necessary, she said, “Beg parding, ma’am, I won’t do it again,” and remained where she was standing.

“Well, dis gal is really foolish!” exclaimed Sarah. “She say she sorry she destroy Miss Mason table, an’ she wont even teck off de t’ing off of it! Gal! y’u foolish, no?”

“Look here, Jane,” said Mrs Mason, fatigue and the carelessness of the girl combining to make her feel angry, “Look here! let me tell you at once that I don’t want to ‘ave any botheration with you. You seem to have been brought up in a very careless way where you come from, but you will have to learn better here. You must be very stupid to go an’ put the wet sugar on me drawing-room table; and if it wasn’t that you just come to Kingston for the first time and perhaps don’t know better, I would teach you a good leason for you’ carelessness. Now just take that parcel off the-table at once an’ put it where Sarah will tell you. And never you do such a thing again!”

“Come on!” said Sarah sharply to Jane. “It’s a good ting,” she added loudly, but as if she intended her words for Jane’s hearing alone, “it’s a good t’ing you have a lady like Miss Mason to deal wid, or y’u would feel sorry for you’ foolishness.”

Jane said nothing, but followed Sarah meekly. She understood that she had just escaped a severe punishment which two grown persons considered she thoroughly deserved, and so terror now came to add to her general misery. She would have liked to return home at once, but knew that was impossible. She had never connected Kingston with threats of bodily castigation; besides, she was not at all convinced that she had done anything wrong.

She wasn’t allowed much time to reflect upon her situation, for Mrs Mason at once set her to opening the parcels and storing their contents in a wooden cupboard in the dining-room, Sarah assisting her, with frequent comments on her clumsiness, and more than one allusion to her evident desire to destroy Mrs Mason’s furniture.

When this bit of work was over, Mrs Mason announced that she expected her trunks by cart a little later on, and ordered both Jane and Sarah to listen for the rap of the cartman; though, as she added, he being what she called a “nager,”[1] she did not-expect he would arrive until several hours after the appointed time, and probably only after making an attempt to steal something out of her trunks.

She gave Jane a bit of bread and some sugar, and directed Sarah to tell the girl what she was to do. Then, as both her nieces and her nephew would come home before six o’clock, she went to her room to rest for a while before actively taking over the housekeeping.

The house contained four rooms built in one row, each room opening into the other. The first, which faced the street, was the drawing-room, the next (and the smallest) was where the family took their meals, the third was Mrs Mason’s bedroom, and the last was occupied by her nieces, two girls of eighteen and nineteen years of age respectively, who had been recently employed to serve in one of the cloth shops in Orange Street. There was another room in the yard, a sort of annex to the main building, and this was her nephew’s bedroom. The yard itself was fairly large, unpaved, and at the end of it, at right angles to the house, was, a range of light, dilapidated outbuildings, one of which was a servant’s room, where Sarah slept, and which was now to be shared by Jane.

Into this room Jane was conducted by Sarah. It contained a canvas cot big enough for one person only, and on the cot was a dirty straw pillow and a bundle of rags. There was a chair with its cane-seat half gone, two small boxes, and a little trunk in which Sarah kept such articles of dress as she happened to possess. Jane had with her the little bundle containing her clothing, and Sarah told her to put this on the trunk. On her timidly asking where she was to sleep, Sarah said that Mrs Mason would give her some bedding later on, which she could spread upon the floor.

At the threshold of the room Jane sat down to eat her lunch of bread and sugar, while Sarah, hoping that Mrs Mason was asleep, entered into a conversation with her. Sarah’s manner had suddenly changed. It was not unfriendly, and tended every moment to become more intimate. Emboldened by this new attitude of hers, Jane ventured to ask her what she thought of Mrs Mason.

“A real wretch!” declared Sarah with startling frankness. “I just stayin’ here tell I can get anoder jobs. She quarrel about everyt’ing, and she so mean dat if y’u teck a piece of stale bread dat she don’t want, she will miss it and ask y’u about it. She an’ me can’t agree at all; but of cou’se, as she come back fresh to-day, she wont say noten to me yet. But you wait an’ see! She an’ me gwine to quarrel before long. And her two niece is just like herself. Dem t’ink them is young lady because dem can dress up, but I doan’t t’ink noten of dem, for if dem was young lady dem would a live in a better ‘ouse dan dis, an’ would keep more dan one sarvant an’ a schoolgirl. Dem gwine to want y’u to do everyt’ing fo’ dem, an’ dem will work y’u to death if y’u meck them do it. As soon as I get anoder jobs I goin’ clear out an’ leave de dam place!”

“Y’u don’t glad she come back, den?” asked Jane, who could not but remember the enthusiasm with which Sarah had greeted her mistress.

“Glad? What to glad fo’? What she bring fo’ me? If she did broke her neck when she was comin’ down de hill, I would be glad, yes; but dat is de only t’ing I would be glad about. I tell y’u, nobody can stay long wid her.”

“Y’u ever work any other place before?” was Jane’s next question, asked with the hope of finding out if employment was easy to obtain in Kingston, and with a kinder sort of person than Mrs Mason promised to be.

“Plenty of place. I only been here four months. But mose of de people I work wid is de same like dis one. Dem all t’ink you is a slave an’ a t’ief. De fact of de matter is,” she continued spitefully, “I hate to ‘ave to work out at all, but y’u see, I don’t ‘ave no friend, so I can’t do better. Y’u done eat? Well, come help me wash up some plate. I will soon ‘ave to put on de dinner.”

Jane noticed that Sarah, like Celestina, looked upon a “friend” as the one and only way out of the misery of domestic service: Sarah, too, was even more emphatic on the disadvantages of domestic service than ever Celestina had been, and Sarah had practical experience.

She helped to wash the plates, then made up the fire for Sarah, who afterwards got her to clean a few knives. This she did after a fashion of her own, and put them where she was told. Then Mrs Mason called her and began personally to instruct her in her several duties.

  1. A negro.


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