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A Christmas Cake in Four Quarters

Chapter I. Christmas Day in Jamaica

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Chapter I. Christmas Day in Jamaica.

When the next afternoon came, heavy fleecy clouds, which had gradually been sailing up towards us from the north, began to dissolve themselves in soft, silent snow-flakes, so we had to amuse the children as well as we could indoors. They were all the least bit tired, and fractious, not actually naughty, but inclined, to take a dismal view of things. For instance, Jack was quite cross with the younger ones for admiring the pure, feathery snower, grumbling, "You are so stupid don't you know it will spoil the ice for skating!"

"Oh no, Jack," said Cathy, the hopeful, "it need page 100not do that; we will all get up very early and sweep it off the big pond. Think what fun that will be!"

"I wish Christmas went on over and over again for three or four days," sighed Nora; "it is so dreadful to think it is past and gone for such a long, long time."

"What is that I hear about Christmas being over?" said Mrs. Owen, as she came into the school-room, bringing smiles and good humour back again with her. These pleasant, pretty little household fairies had just got as far as the door, and were thinking sorrowfully that they must positively go into the kitchen, or even across to the big farm where the waggoners were having their dinner, when Mrs. Owen's cheery voice brought them all back again.

"Is it not nice to be at home again?" said Cathy's dimple to a laughing spark in Frank'seyes

"Very nice indeed," replied the merry beam; page 101and just look how glad Jack's face is to get back its smile! We were all very nearly off that time; but hush! listen to Mrs. Owen, there'll be a lot more of us directly.

This is what Mrs. Owen was saying.

"Yes, dears, I have spent Christmas days all over the world nearly, and sometimes at sea. Once I fully believed I should never see the dawn of another holy birthday, and once I had to run for my life on Christmas Day."

"Oh! do tell us about that," said Jack and Frank together. "No, about the Christmas at sea!" screamed Gerald and Georgie.

"'Top, make me 'peak," cried Hope, not quite knowing what he wished to say, but feeling it his duty to assert his rights.

"Dear me, this is dreadful," I thought to myself. "I wonder if people ever die of perpetual story-telling. I don't mean fibs, but adventures. If they do, Mrs. Owen won't survive this snowy Christmas."

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However, that bright-eyed lady did not look like dying, except from being smothered with kisses and hugs, for all the children were clinging to her, clamouring for "more Christmases." As soon as she could make her voice heard, she said, "Now be quiet, and I'll tell you what we will do."

"Yes, be quiet!" shouted the boys to each other.

"Ki-et, go 'way," echoed Violet.

"No, don't go 'way," said Mrs. Owen; "at least only as far as the school-room. There is a capital fire there, and we won't disturb either nurse or pussy, who is fast asleep on the bear-skin. I see plainly there will be no more going out this evening, so we will amuse ourselves famously indoors. You must all be too tired after yesterday's fun, to care for romping games, so we will come' into the school-room, settle ourselves comfortably, and I will tell you about my first Christmas in Jamaica. There now, Mrs. A——shall have the big armchair, so that she can go to sleep if she likes; page 103and if we have not finished all you want to know when nurse calls you for tea, we will go on until dinner-time."

"All about Jamaica," stipulated the elder children. "And mind you begin from the very beginning of Christmas Day," whispered Cathy, coaxingly.

"Yes, from the very beginning," replied Mrs. Owen; "I can't begin earlier, you know, than when I opened my eyes on the first Christmas Day which I could recollect spending in Jamaica. We, that is my sister and myself, had been in England, away from our dear parents for many years, ever since we were little children in fact, for both health and education, and we had only returned to our tropic home a fortnight or so before this Christmas morning. Although it was in the middle of the cool season, as the Jamaica winter is called, we found it very hot, and our cheeks had already lost their English roses. But still it was so very delightful to be at home, to be suddenly promoted to the dignity of young ladies—for we were only fifteen page 104and sixteen years old respectively—that we did not mind the imprisonment all day in large, dark, cool rooms, and the impossibility of getting out of doors, except before sunrise and after sunset.

"The novelty of everything was charming to our young eyes; we thought the costumes of the negro women so picturesque, and that they all looked so much nicer during the week in their bright short skirts and striped white jackets, their heads covered with a gay cotton kerchief, than on Sunday dressed in fine fashionable gowns, and with white bonnets and flowing veils perched on the top of their frizzed-out wool.

"Yes, Nora, don't be impatient, darling. I am coming back to Christmas morning; but just before I open my eyes, you know, I must tell you what sort of a room Frances and I had been sleeping in. Imagine a great lofty hall, not in the least like an English bedroom. It was supposed to be very cool, because only one side of it opened out into a rose garden with a 'grass-piece' or meadow page 105of tall guinea grass beyond it. The big drawing-room opened off one side, and the long gallery off another, where we used to sit and draw or work, as it had a cool aspect Then our bathroom, full of tall, Spanish earthenware jars, and with two enormous cedar bowls for baths, protected us from the fierce outer glare on the third side.

"When we first saw this great hall of a bedroom, Frances and I felt rather daunted. It looked so bare and desolate compared to our little snug English rooms, with their gay chintzes and carpets. The whitewashed walls of our new apartment had a workhouse appearance to us; and as for our two tiny brass bedsteads, they stood out in the very middle of the room for coolness, and were each furnished with a long mosquito net, covering them all over, instead of curtains. Then the dressing table was not at all pretty; instead of being dressed in nice pink and white petticoats, it had thick mahogany legs, and was quite bare of all page 106drapery. Moreover, these solid heavy legs stood each in a small tin tub, half full of water, to keep off the ants. The principal furniture consisted of two of the biggest wardrobes I ever saw, and we wondered where we should ever get clothes to fill them, until we found that Papa liked us to wear nothing but white muslin gowns, and that lie expected us to have on a perfectly fresh one each morning. We felt very like tiny children at first in our clean white frocks every day, especially as he made us wear dark blue ribbons and aprons with them. At last, some one said we looked like little men-of-war's men in their Sunday best, and then we were happier, for we would rather have been compared to sailors than to babies.

"My dear Cathy, it is of no use pinching me; I am coming back to that Christmas morning. Here we are, it is just six o'clock; our brown maid—and a very neat, clean little maid Amalia was—stood smiling in the space between our little beds with a tray of coffee cups in her hands."

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"'Merry Kismas to you bote, Missy. Wake up, Missy, and look 'pon all dem pritty tings.'

"Frances and I sat up as if we had been figures worked by machinery, and a touch on one spring had served to send us both into an upright position. We looked at each other and then at Amalia, whose hands were too full to use, so she grinned again—showing such rows of pearls—and pointing with her chin and nodding her yellow and red turban towards the foot of our little beds, she repeated, 'Ess, Missy, plenty pritties, Malia berry glad; dough, Miss Frances, him must drink him coffee fust ting afore him get up, else him hab feber for true.'

"That was Amalia's great threat. If we did not do everything she thought proper, we were to get 'feber dat berry minnit.'

"But Frances and I were both out of bed in an instant without our coffee, and standing in speechless delight at a small table, which had been placed during the night at the foot of our brass page 108bedsteads. It was concealed by a fringed muslin cover; and when this was raised, the first things we seized upon with a shriek of delight were two little gold watches, with our pet names enamelled on the back of each, and a slip of paper to say they were Mamma's gift to us. How delighted we were; we could hardly stop to examine the charming inlaid desks, exactly alike, labelled 'from Papa,' or the twin fans, white silk embroidered in silver, from our soldier cousin, who had just come back from the Havannah. The table also held some books we had longed most ardently to possess, and Amalia's offering of a gay bouquet of flowers, all wet and sparkling with dew, was by no means the least admired of the Christmas presents.

"We disregarded all Amalia's threats and cries 'Hi, my king,' and barely taking time to put on our dressing gowns, rushed across the big drawing-room to our mother's room, to thank and kiss her and Papa for their kindness. There we found the page 109younger children assembled in equal glee and delight at the toy contents of their table, and we were all so uproarious and wild that Mamma had the greatest difficulty in getting rid of us, and inducing us to go away and dress for breakfast. Frances and I agreed that we were proud and happy girls as we hung our new watches round our necks, and fastened them securely in our blue waistbands."

"Where is yours now, Mrs. Owen?" asked a whole chorus of little voices.

"Ah, my dears, I cannot tell you the fate of that watch now. It was stolen from me. But let me go on with my Christmas Day. I remember it all so vividly that you must not disturb the current of my thoughts, or you may destroy the reflection in Time's stream."

"Were you in time for breakfast?" demanded Gerald, whose own habits were somewhat dilatory.

"Yes, I managed to be so, my dear; but Frances page 110went on dancing about the room and romping with the children until the first bell rang, so I had to go down alone and make tea for Papa. It was not at all like an English breakfast table, for there was hardly anything but fruit and iced water on it; the tea and coffee stood on a side table at one end of the room, and the dishes of meat and rice and fish on another, as far off as possible. The servants were negroes, dressed entirely in spotless white, with bare feet, except the butler, who wore pumps, but no stockings.

"Well, Papa and I were sitting alone at breakfast, when we heard a noise in the marble flagged verandah outside, and between us and the dazzling flood of sunlight stood a very tall African soldier. He was the orderly of the day, and bore two good-conduct stripes on his arm. He was a full-blooded negro, but could hardly speak a word of English; he belonged to one of the West India regiments, which are chiefly recruited from the West Coast of Africa. The first thing I noticed page 111was that he wore no shoes, and I cannot describe how funny his bare feet looked on the white flags, contrasted with his white duck trousers and scarlet coat. The moment this orderly caught my father's eye he drew himself together and made a stiff military salute, which he repeated until Papa acknowledged it, and then he took a letter out of his cartouche box and handed it to my father. After glancing at it Papa said to me, 'I must write an answer; don't let him go,' and he went off to his desk into an adjoining room.

"'Good gracious, Papa, how am I to keep that great man here, if he should try to go away?' I cried; but Papa did not answer, and left me wondering whether I was expected to knock the soldier down if he attempted to depart, or what means I should adopt to take him prisoner. However, as he stood quite still, I went on eating my pears, and occasionally glancing round at the big African, who made me a military salute every time I caught his eye. At last, between one of these page 112glances I heard a whisper close behind my chair, 'Missy! Missy!' and turning hastily round, saw the black soldier bending towards me with the most earnest look of entreaty, joining his hands like a child at prayers, and whispering insinuatingly, 'Kiss, Missy, kiss.' Here was a pretty thing; I felt too angry to be frightened, and I am ashamed now to think how furiously and scornfully I looked at him and said loudly, 'No! go away.'"

"Go 'way," murmured sleepy Violet, from Mrs. Owen's lap; "go 'way."

"Yes, my pet, I did say!'Go 'way, only not so prettily as that. I said it very crossly and to my horror I heard Papa call out, 'Don't let him go away, Pansy, whatever you do.' My indignation rose at this proof of filial devotion which seemed to be expected of me; and as the soldier advanced a step nearer and held out one hand, to take mine as I thought, I could endure it no longer, and shrieked out, 'He must go away, Papa, this minute, he wants to kiss me.'

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"'Hey! what?' said my father, coming into the room, pen in hand. 'What's this?' but he neither looked shocked nor angry as I anticipated; the orderly stood once more at 'attention,' but repeated, 'Kiss, missy; kiss, Massa.'

"'This is what he wants,' said Papa, and he took a couple of shillings out of his pocket, saying, as he put them into the outstretched black hand, 'Missy kiss, massa kiss.'

"I was still bewildered, but my father had evidently hit upon the right reading of the riddle, for my sable friend troubled me no more, but stood contemplating the silver coins with much satisfaction, murmuring from time to time the words which had so offended me. After Papa had given him the letter, and sent him off, he turned to Frances, who was just coming down, and said. 'There has been a black orderly here, who brought me a letter, and frightened Pansy out of her wits by asking her for a Christmas-box. I do believe she fancied he wanted to kiss her. He page 114was not dreaming of anything but the shilling I always give a messenger on Christmas Day.'

"'I am very glad I was late,' remarked Frances, 'for I should not have liked to have been mixed up with such a mistake, and Pansy shall never hear the last of it.' However, I looked so miserable that Papa promised not to tease me any more, and except a sly look when anything was said about blunders he kept his word pretty well.

"'Did we go to church?' Of course we did. Only it was so hot, and the street being ankle deep in sand, we were obliged to drive, although our house was not more than two or three hundred yards from the beautiful old Spanish cathedral. I am told that I should hardly know it again, and that it has been restored and beautified to suit modern ideas, but I like to think of it as I remember it that blazing Christmas morning; its old high mahogany pews, with their arched roofs turned into bowers by green branches. The old-fashioned tablets of the Commandments, were supported by page 115pillars of tree ferns; whilst the sprigs of pimento and coffee diffused a spice-like smell all over the gaunt, bare building. Old negro women, with broad straw hats put on over their turbans, sat on the rows of benches in the broad aisle, whilst the more fashionable members of the black community were hidden in pews. All the doors were set wide open, and every now and then a gay-coloured bird would flit in and raise a commotion among the swallows, who regularly lived within the cathedral, and who permitted no twittering save their own, hunting out all intruders with hot haste.

"The service was very beautiful, as it always is; and the anthem of peace and goodwill sounded all the sweeter to my ears for the loud, clear tones with which the negroes joined in its strains. They sang with all their might,, putting a fervour and heartiness into their vociferous hymns, which make up for their strange pronunciation of the words. Frances and 1 agreed, whilst we were page 116driving home, that this, our first tropical Christmas, would always stand out by itself in our memories from any others which might follow it. Alas! we little knew how soon we should be scattered, never to meet again on Christmas Day."