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A Christmas Cake in Four Quarters

Chapter II. Christmas Day in Jamaica {continued)

page 118

Chapter II. Christmas Day in Jamaica {continued).

"And what did you do when you came home?" inquired Jack, who was determined not to be sentimental himself, nor allow anyone else that indulgence, if he could help it.

"Let me see," answered Mrs. Owen; "I believe the very first thing we did was to go to the refrigerator, or great zinc-lined box where the ice was kept, and take out some fruit—bananas or a pine-apple, or perhaps a naseberry (a delicious sort of plum). Then we went upstairs, where we found Mamma reading a letter from our soldier-cousin, who lived thirteen or fourteen miles off. page 118In this letter he agreed to come and dine with us on Christmas evening, stipulating, however, that he should not be laughed at, for he admitted that he was a ridiculous object with a swelled face.

"Frances and I were both quite indignant at the notion of laughing at anyone who was ill or in suffering, and entreated Mamma to believe that we were incapable of such heartless conduct, but she did not seem so sure of our self-control, and said, warningly—

"'Well, you must try to behave properly, for Paul certainly does look very odd when his face swells so terribly;' and some amusing recollection evidently flitted across dear gentle Mamma's mind, for she turned away hastily, but not before Frances and I had detected a smile dawning on her kind face.

"The only excitement we had in the afternoon was derived from the loss of our best bonnets, which were made of chip and trimmed with rosebuds, each bonnet containing about as much material as would make three head-coverings now-page 119a-days; but in spite of their hideousness, Frances and I were very proud of them, as they were our first 'grown-up bonnets.' It was a pity, under these circumstances, that we were not more careful of them; but I am sorry to say that when we came back from church we flung them down on the bed, forgetting that Amalia had gone to see her 'mudder and de piccaninnies.' When it was time to go out for a drive we went into our room, and there beheld two black heaps on the floor. They were the bonnets, covered by ants. The sea-breeze had blown them down; the smell of the new straw and the gum and sugar in the artificial flowers had attracted legions and myriads of ants, who not only covered the bonnets so that it was difficult to see what was the foundation of the black heap, but had completely destroyed the flowers by biting the petals, and had even nibbled the straw edges of the bonnets so as to render them quite unwearable. You never saw anything so systematic as the ants' method of setting to work, page 120They formed themselves into processions; some arriving in an orderly, business-like manner to take part in the great work of destruction; whilst those who were either fatigued or had eaten enough departed in return battalions, with here and there a tiny fragment of straw or a mite of muslin rose-petal borne as a great treasure by stalwart ants.

"Frances and I uttered loud lamentations over our ruined finery, but Mamma's first care was to get the housemaid to sweep the angry creatures away, and to take care that there were no army-corps in reserve anywhere waiting to pounce upon us when we were off our guard.

"This mishap sent both of us girls out for our drive with Mamma in very sober spirits, and we did not derive any comfort from the stories she told us of the ravages committed by a species of fish-tail moth, which had been known to devour a wreath of flowers so completely as to leave only the wire foundation behind; or of the digestion of page 121the white ant, who is a sworn foe to all imported woods, and, leaving the veneer untouched so as to conceal his operations, will eat away the legs of a piano, or the whole of an English-made work-table, until the unfortunate piece of furniture collapses suddenly with a crash, having been reduced by gradual stages to the thickness of a sheet of paper.

"Just as we came home another carriage drove in to the court-yard, with which all Jamaica houses are surrounded, and waited for ours to be dismissed from the steps where we had alighted. Mamma glanced at a muffled-up figure in it by the side of the black coachman (for it was a sort of cabriolet or buggy), and, turning to us, said, severely, 'Now, I insist on it, girls, that you don't laugh.' We had no time to answer, for the buggy came up to the steps where we were still standing, and one glance at the figure inside was sufficient to scatter all good resolutions to the winds. As long as Cousin Paul kept his countenance such as we then beheld, it was of no use our trying to keep page 122ours! You never saw such a face in all your lives; and I hope, if it be necessary to try to preserve your gravity on the occasion, you never may. Under ordinary circumstances Cousin Paul had a thin face, with rather nice eyes, but there was generally nothing remarkable about his appearance one way or other.

"Now he seemed to have two mismatched faces badly joined together. One side represented a pale, haggard, thin face, with a reproachful eye set in it; whilst the other half was scarlet, swollen so that it was more like a hideous mask in a pantomime than anything else; and there was no eye to be seen at all. This cheek was level with his nose, and his mouth had also disappeared in the general mass of swelling, leaving only a very little hole on the well side of his face, through which poor Cousin Paul said, in a high whistling voice, quite unlike his usual tones—

"'I wish I hadn't come; I knew you'd laugh.'

"Laugh! I should think we did. It was of no use page 123trying to run away; the sight of such a countenance kept us rooted to the spot where we stood, positively shrieking with mirth. Mamma made one supreme effort to look perfectly grave and sympathising, but when Cousin Paul turned his melancholy eye upon her, she too gave way and laughed nearly as much as we did. But she suffered agonies from remorse whilst she laughed, and tried more than once to recover her composure, whereas we made no attempt of the kind.

"When Cousin Paul got out of the carriage it was worse, for with his hat off he was a more astounding object than with it on; and every time he began to whistle out a mournful recital of the remedies he had tried, and how everything only seemed to make the swelling worse, we set off again in peals and peals of laughter.

"'This is the result of hot camomile, fomentations,' said he with difficulty, and pointing to where his left eye should have been.

"It was impossible to go on in this way; Frances page 124and I would have died of laughing, I believe, if Mamma had not carried off her pet nephew to his room, summoned Cadda, the old black housekeeper, to her aid, and advised him to keep quiet and go to bed, which he did, poor fellow! It was a dismal way of spending his Christmas evening, but it never would have done to allow us to see him trying to drink some soup out of a spouted mug inserted into one corner of his mouth. Badly as we behaved at the first glimpse of his face, we should have been much worse at the sight of his efforts to feed himself. He told us afterwards that we had no idea of the agonies he endured from being seized with a paroxysm of laughter at the sight of his own face in a looking-glass that morning. Ever after, whilst the swelling lasted, there Avas nothing he dreaded so much as being made to smile; and as Mamma was the only person who could, after the first shock, look at him without laughing, he steadily declined to see anyone else until he was well.

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"Then, as if we had not laughing enough before dinner, we had a dreadful trial of our gravity during that meal. The party was rather a large one, for our father always made it a rule to invite new comers, or people who had no family circle of their own, to dine with us on that day, declaring that he had spent one solitary Christmas in his life, and had found it so inexpressibly dreary and sad, that he could not bear to think of anyone else doing so. Now the great difficulty at these Christmas festivities was the plum-pudding. Very few negro cooks (they are all men by the way) had the remotest idea of what a plum-pudding was like, for it is by no means a favourite dish in the tropics. Indeed no one ever thought of having such a rich, hot thing except at Christmas; and in the generality of tropical households, after many efforts and many failures, it had at last been given up. Mamma would have rejoiced at the abandonment of the national dish, for she had gone through severe trials connected with it; but Papa page 126considered it a dreadful, almost a wicked thing, to sit down to dinner on Christmas Day without roast beef, turkey, mince-pies, and a plum-pudding. So, instead of our usual nice, light, digestible dinner, suited to the climate, we found ourselves a large party, sitting round our Christmas dinner table laden with English fare. Poor Mamma had two great anxieties on her mind. There was the uncertainty when and how the pudding might make its appearance. Once it had been sent up in the form of sauce, to be handed about with the mince-pies; and on other occasions it had come to table tied up in its cloth, and the whole affair had been set on fire by the butler, who thought it was all right, and poured the blazing brandy over it before he could be prevented. Her second great dread was that any of the guests should mention or allude to Cousin Paul. There was nothing Papa disliked so much as giggling; and if Paul's name had been uttered, it is quite certain that Frances and I would have behaved badly in that respect page 127My own belief is that Mamma went about before dinner entreating her guests not to mention Paul's name, for the way the subject was avoided struck us afterwards as being very suspicious.

"However, all went well until it was time for the second course to appear. Everything had been removed belonging to the first course, and servant after servant went out of the room to see what had become of the sweet things. Mamma grew paler and more nervous at each moment's delay, and murmured plaintively to her neighbour, 'I am sure it is the plum-pudding.' But it was not the pudding—at least no pudding appeared; and at last my father said sternly to the butler, who alone remained in the room,—

"'We can't wait all night for the pudding, James; send it in just as it is; or let us have the rest of the dinner, at all events.'

"James bowed gravely and departed; a moment after he left the dining-room we heard a wild scuffling and confusion outside and many 'Hi's' page 128—' 'top him.' In rushed the black cook, Alphonse by name, very tipsy, with his shirt sleeves rolled up, his cooking apron fluttering behind him, and bearing in his outstretched arms a very large dish, which he set down before Mamma, crying,—

"'Dere, my good Missus, dere your puddin's; Alphonse make dem fuss-class. James say dem too small. Cho! him know noting 'bout puddin'. 'Top one littel minnit, Alphonse break him sarcy head;' and out he dashed to carry his threat into execution.

"Certainly the puddings were small, very small; in fact they were no bigger than Violet's little fist. Three or four of the diminutive dainties, looking exactly like tiny cannon-balls, reposed, with wide spaces between each, on the huge dish. Mamma gazed mournfully at them and said, 'I wonder why he has boiled it in separate pieces like this.' Papa took a more cheerful view of matters and cried gaily, 'Never mind, mother, I daresay they taste very good; let us each have a little bit,— page 129
"Dere, my good missus, dere your puddins; Alphonsc make dem fuss-class."—p. 128

"Dere, my good missus, dere your puddins; Alphonsc make dem fuss-class."—p. 128

page 129 page 129just for luck, you know.' Mamma shook her head, for she had grave misgivings about their taste, but she took up a spoon and attempted to carry out her husband's directions. We all watched her in breathless silence. First she tried one small pudding and then another—tried to help it, I mean—but the moment she touched it with a spoon, the hard little lump bounced away. It was impossible to catch it, and, after chasing the refractory hard lumps of pudding round the dish, she laid down the spoon in despair.

"'Let me try,' said the gentleman nearest to her, and he seized a spoon with more goodwill than judgment, for the moment he tried to get the pudding into a corner of the dish, and divide it into two pieces, it sprang bodily out of the dish and leapt, like an india-rubber ball, right into the lap of one of the guests.

"'It is as hard as a stone,' said its new possessor. 'I don't believe I could cut it with a knife;' and as he spoke he tried to hold it with his fork and cut page 130it with his knife. But he was equally unsuccessful: the pudding slipped as skilfully away from under the sharp blade as it had done from the spoon, and bounded off to the opposite side of the table.

"I remember quite well that we let the other puddings alone: they appeared to be all equally solid and equally averse to being eaten; so James once more took up the first of this strange species of Christmas fare, and putting it back on the dish, carried the whole affair off to Alphonse, who had been tied into his chair, and who was so enraged at the rejection of his cherished dainties that he shied them one after the other at the butler's retreating figure. Certainly James made a most undignified and hasty entrance into the dining-room, and we heard a sound as of a Stone following him closely.

"'Is that a plum-pudding, James?' asked my father.

'"Ess, Massa. one little hard puddin', Alphonse page 131him trow it; bad man Alphonse, him can't make English puddin."

"Frances and I did not laugh at the time so much as might have been expected, because we were rather alarmed about Alphonse's state of tipsiness, and also because we saw that Mamma could not laugh. She knew how much importance our father attached to having a large English plum-pudding at his Christmas dinners, and. like a good wife, she grieved sincerely at his disappointment. I am sure she would have tried to make one pudding herself if she had possessed the slightest practical knowledge of cookery; but ladies in Jamaica hardly ever go into their kitchens on account of the great heat, and are therefore obliged to trust entirely to their negro cooks, who are not generally very clever in their profession.

"And now I have dwelt so long on the merriment of this Christmas Day, that you will perhaps be astonished to hear that before the party broke up, both Frances and I had a good fit of crying; page 132but when I tell you why, it will not seem so odd, I dare say.

"In the evening, after dinner, we were all sitting out in the verandah, enjoying the cool north air, which was stealing down from the mountains, and the delicious scent of the tube-roses and jasmine in the flower-beds beneath us. We could hear the cool lapping sound of the river Cobra, one of whose many serpentine curves swept round the bottom of our grass piece, and the distant croak of the frogs on its banks. A nightingale, as it is called there—though it does not resemble our English nightingales a bit, either in its plumage or note—was singing its sweet low song, as if to itself, on the great lignum-vitae tree, outside the window, and the glorious tropical night breathed around us in all its depth and glow of beauty. Frances and I used to declare we liked the starlight nights better than those on which everything was as distinct as in the day-time, under the brilliancy of the moon; for in the comparative darkness, the fireflies and glow-page 133worms could be seen hanging their fairy lanterns on every quivering blade of grass, or every fragrant flower bell.

"Ah! my children, it was a beautiful night—a night so beautiful that it made us all sad, which is a strange effect of beauty, that you cannot yet understand. Indeed one reason why I remember it all so vividly is, that it was the first moment I seemed to leave my child-nature behind me, and comprehend the touch of melancholy which so often comes with intense feeling. Although, we were all determined to be gay on this our first Christmas evening together, we were a very quiet silent party, as we sat out there in the soft summer night, and it seemed in harmony with the scene, when one of our party said softly, 'I heard such a sad story to-day, and I am afraid there is no doubt it is true.'

"'Did you?' answered Mamma; 'tell us what you heard: we should like a story, even if it be a sad one.'

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"And so he told us this little tale, which is perhaps too sad for Christmas time; but those who don't like sad stories may go to the tea-table, to which I hear Nurse calling you. No, I won't tell you a word more, until you have all had your tea—I want some tea myself, you dreadful children; I can't go on for ever talking to you without having what Jack calls 'a spell' now and then!

"Yes, Nurse, they are quite ready: run away, monkeys." And so saying, poor Mrs. Owen shook off her tribe of listeners, and went away to have her own tea and enjoy a little silence and quiet in another room.