Jane’s Career: A Story of Jamaica

Chapter 4

It seemed to Jane that she was expected to do everything. She was to run errands, clean the house, dust the furniture, learn to cook, help Sarah with the washing, and, it was added (with unconscious irony), make herself generally useful. Sarah’s principal functions were cooking and washing, and neither of these, in the opinion of Mrs Mason (and, truth to tell, of all Sarah’s previous employers), did she manage to do satisfactorily.

Mrs Mason having rested, was now in a kinder temper than when she had discovered the bundle on her drawing-room table. She even relaxed so far as to warn Jane against following Sarah’s example, and held out the hope that Jane would be promoted to Sarah’s place, though decidedly not to Sarah’s pay, the moment she became efficient enough to justify Mrs Mason’s bundling Sarah “neck and crop” out of the house.

These were the lady’s own words, for already a cursory examination of things had convinced her that Sarah had been neglecting her duties. Besides, her plan had always been to set servant against servant, this being one of the best means she knew of preventing them from gossiping and wasting time. Later on in the day she told Sarah that she must keep a sharp eye upon Jane and report to her any laxity on the girl’s part. This Sarah promised to do most faithfully, and immediately afterwards her voice was heard remonstrating with Jane. But she privately told Jane of the interview, for Sarah firmly believed in eye-service, and was determined to get Jane to perform for her, if possible, the major part of her work.

Jane was tired, but was kept pretty busy until Mrs Mason’s nieces and nephew came in. The two girls were somewhat darker than their aunt, and there was nothing about their attitude to justify Sarah’s unfriendly criticism The nephew was of Mrs Mason’s complexion, with a weak chin and rather snubby nose. His hair was crisp and curly; he was shiftless in character. Up to then—he was twenty-two years of age—he had done little more than lose his situations. He was, nevertheless, a firm believer in his own abilities, to which he alluded with painful frequency. He apparently suffered from lack of appreciation on the part of others.

Dinner was served soon after the younger people had come in, and though the family did not as a rule have anyone to wait on table when they dined, Mrs Mason thought it just as well that Jane should be inducted at once into the mysteries of butlering, since her services in that connection might be required on some important occasion.

The girl brought in the dishes nervously, and Mrs Mason told her where to place them. Then she stood near her mistress to await further instructions. From his seat at the, foot of the table, and when he thought his aunt’s attention was fully engaged in ladling out pea soup, Cecil surveyed the new schoolgirl with the appreciative glance of a connoisseur; he took her in, so to speak, limb by limb, then sized her up as a physical whole; he approved of her as an addition to the household, and tried to convey to her his friendly and sympathetic feeling by one or two furtive winks. These Jane, with all the awe of the new situation still upon her, could not quite believe were intended for her. The young ladies discussed her openly, and asked her questions about herself with that friendly freedom of intercourse which so many Jamaicans show in dealing with their servants.

The elder, Miss Cynthia, asked her if she were going to be a good girl. Her answer was: “Yes, ma’am.”

The younger sister wanted to know if she liked Kingston and was glad she had come to town. She said yes.

The younger sister wanted to know if she liked Kingston and was glad she had come to town. She said yes.

“I hope she will be’ave,” said Mrs Mason. “I ‘ave had to get rid of two girls in the last six months through their forwardness. And if she don’t be’ave I will send her right back to her mother. You hear that, Jane?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“The one thing I don’t like in a servant is back-answers. If you are civil I can put up with a lot, but not otherwise. Pass this plate to Mr Cecil.”

As Jane did so, that enterprising young gentleman made use of the opportunity to pinch her arm slightly, which act, being quite unexpected, caused her to spill a little of the soup on the table.

“You must learn to be more earful, Jane,” said Miss Emma, the younger of the two sisters. “If you throw away things like that over the tablecloth when anybody is here, they will say you are not use’ to waiting on table, and make us look bad. You must mind what you doing.”

“She nearly destroyed my mahogany table this morning,” Mrs Mason observed, “and I would ‘ave been very vexed with her if she hadn’t just come. But she will ‘ave to learn all these things. Jane” (sharply) “pay attention to what I am saying an’ don’t stare at Mr Cecil. He is not saying anything to you. Remember, I ‘ave told you I don’t allow forwardness.”

But Cecil had been trying to attract Jane’s attention. She, however, was wise enough to say nothing about this. The rest of the ordeal she passed through easily enough, for though she was corrected once or twice, her efforts were fairly successful. Mrs Mason and her family’s experience with butlers was of the most elementary order; so that, if Jane did lack knowledge of what she was to do, meticulous criticism was not to be expected from them.

Dinner over, Jane found that her day’s duties were nearly completed. Mrs Mason told her that she had better accompany Sarah to the shop that night; this to enable her to learn something about the neighbourhood. While waiting till Sarah should be ready to go, she sat at the threshold of the servants’ room chatting. But she talked more to drive away the feeling of loneliness which gripped at her heart than because she felt inclined for conversation.

“’Ow y’u like it?” asked Sarah after a while, referring to the girl’s first day in Kingston.

“I doan’t know,” replied Jane hesitatingly. “I doan’t go, anywhere yet. I feel tired, an’ de ole lady seem like she love to rough me. An’ Mr Cecil” … she hesitated and stopped.

“Him!” exclaimed Sarah contemptuously; “Him is a real mamparla [effeminate] man! Him ‘fraid for him aunt, an’ yet him want to ‘speak up’ female. It was him dat meck Rachael leave here.”

“Which Rachael?” asked Jane.

“De schoolgal dat was here before you. She was a Kingston gurl, a little older dan you, an’ she didn’t have no use for him. But him tease her till she rude to him, an’ him aunt curse her an’ drive her ‘way. De whole o’ them is a set! Me clearing out of it, me love! Just wait till I get anoder jobs!”

Here she heard Mrs Mason calling to her, and ran to answer the summons. For though she professed the greatest contempt for her mistress, she knew that “anoder jobs” was not always easy to obtain, and she did not wish to lose her situation just then.

She came back in a few minutes.

“Y’u finish eat you’ dinner?” she asked Jane.

“Yes,” said the latter.

“All right. Put on you’ hat, an’ come wid me. am gwine to de market an’ de shop.”

Jane rose hastily, put on the straw hat she had brought with her, and which, hitherto, she had worn only on special occasions. She had more than once heard from Celestina of the glories of shopping on a Saturday night in Kingston, which alone, according to that experienced young woman, made life in the city well worth living. She was eager to see something of this shopping for herself, and the opportunity now afforded her to do so instantly drove away the feeling of loneliness that had taken possession of her.

She and Sarah passed through the side gate of Mrs Mason’s yard and went out into the street. To Jane, accustomed to darkness relieved only by the glow of the moon, the lighted street, with the brightly-lit shops on either side of it, represented a very wonder of illumination; and when she came to Orange Street, and, looking up and down the length of it, saw what appeared to her to be a great avenue of light, admiration reached to ecstasy, and for the first time she felt glad that she had come to town.

The little Syrian shops, filled to overflowing with showy goods intended to capture the fancy of servant girls and women from the country; the groceries and salt provision ShopS, containing all manner of what to the working classes of Kingston are the most delicious of delicacies; the crowds of venders and higglers, each one calling out his and her wares and inviting the passer-by to stop and purchase; the electric cars, all lighted up now, and moving swiftly on their lines with a constant clanging of warning gongs; the hubbub, the incessant movement of hundreds of people, the sound of religious singing which pierced its way through all the other noises; and then the market itself, that market to which Jane’s mother had come occasionally to sell her goods, and which to Jane’s wondering eyes looked as though it contained all the food that could be. grown in a whole year in all the villages she had ever seen—all this filled her with unspeakable delight. As she followed Sarah she stumbled more than once, so intent was she upon gazing at everything she saw. Already the fascination of city life had seized her, and from that hour henceforward, no matter what hardships she might have to face in Kingston, that city was the place above all others in Jamaica that would most appeal to her heart.

Mrs Mason having brought some ground provisions with her from the country, had not sent the girls to buy anything in that line; Sarah’s purchases were therefore trifling, but Jane noticed that Sarah higgled a long time to get seven bananas for a penny-ha’-penny, and, when she succeeded, carefully broke off a banana from the “hand” of fruit and put it in her pocket. She explained the reason to Jane, who, she felt, might blab to her mistress, either intentionally or otherwise.

“Y’u see,” she said, “if it wasn’t dat I did talk to de ‘ooman, I would only get six banana for a quattie;A “quattie” is a penny-ha'-penny. A “gill” is three farthings. for dat is what everybody givin' now. So de extra one is mine. Miss Mason is so mean, she wouldn't even gie y'u de banana skin, so I teck it myself ani I gwine to give y'u a piece. Only now an' den y'u can get anyt'ing out of her when y'u go to de shop; an' if God put it in you' way to meck a little somet'ing, and y'u doan't do it, dat is your fault.”

“But suppose she find out?” said Jane, much disturbed by the fear of discovery.

“It's your fault ef she find out. She quarrel 'bout everyt'ing y'u buy for her, so y'u will always hear her talk; but y'u simply 'ave to teck no notice of her. God know I am not a tief, so I doan't care what anybody choose to say; for ef I get a t'ing little cheaper an' I keep de balance for myself, dat is not robbin'!” She took the banana out of her pocket, breaking it into two unequal parts and giving the smaller part to Jane. She seemed conscious of surpassing virtue as she made the division. She repudiated entirely any suggestion of stealing. Apparently she was only rewarding herself for her own display of business ability.

Sarah seemed to know a large number of persons, especially young men of a rather disreputable appearance, who hung about the market and outside the shops.

To some of these she introduced Jane as “Miss Mason new school gurl,” and at least one of them attempted to be familiar with the neophite on the strength of that introduction. But if Jane was timid and nervous in the presence of her mistress, she was not at all backward in repelling the advances of gentlemen who were more or less like those with whom she had been well acquainted in the country, for, as she said, “she could speak for herself.” On the way home Sarah called in at a Chinaman's shop to buy some groceries, and this also was a source of delight to Jane. She was afraid of the Chinaman and of his wife; but she saw a lot of girls of her own age, and even younger, arguing with these Chinese about the purchases they were making, as though they were grown-up women; and this seemed to her to be proof of the superiority of the town girl over one, like herself, born and brought up in the country.

It was rather fine, she thought, to be able to scream out to the Chinaman: “John, you brute! I see y'u! Y'u not givin' me good weight.” Or to his wife: “Madam! what you doin'? Don't y'u hear me beg y'u a little salt?” All these calls, cries, and imprecations left the two Chinese unruffled, and thus Jane saw that, in a Kingston shop, one could be impudent without any serious consequences following.

After Sarah had made her purchases, she begged a little salt, as she had been told to do by Mrs Mason. She called Jane's attention to this as a further instance of Mrs Mason's meanness, pointing out that if she had not been told to get some salt for her mistress, as a sort of discount on the things bought, she would have got a couple of crackers or a piece of raw salt fish for herself. In more than one way, then, that Saturday night Jane had it brought home to her that the meanness of mistresses fully justified servants in taking a commission in kind out of the purchases they made. She noticed too, when they got home, that Mrs Mason thought it very strange that bananas should be so dear at that time of the year; and when, a few minutes later, she was called aside by her mistress and questioned as to how many bananas Sarah had got for a quattie, and whether she was sure Sarah had bought a quattie's worth or only a penny-farthing's worth of fruit, she declared that Sarah had got only six bananas and had paid penny-ha'-penny for them. Mrs Mason believed her, although Jane had lied with terror in her heart. She told Sarah of the incident that night when she was spreading a bundle of rags on the floor, by way of preparing her bed.

“What I did tell you?” asked Sarah triumphantly. “Didn't I tell y'u how she mean an' suspicious? She not a lady at all.”

Then both set to and closed both the door and the jalousie window of the room so as to exclude fresh air as much as possible, and in a little while they were asleep.


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