A Christmas Cake in Four Quarters
Chapter III. Christmas Day in Jamaica (continued)
Chapter III. Christmas Day in Jamaica (continued).
The children lingered longer at their tea-table than we expected; for when once they found themselves with plenty of bread and butter, and buns and seedcake before them, they discovered that they were really very hungry, and kept Nurse busy pouring out weak tea and cutting up the large loaf. The little ones ate but slowly, and the elder boys' found it very tedious to wait until they had finished; but Nurse would not allow anyone to jump up and run away before the rest; besides which she said:
"Do let poor Mrs. Owen rest a bit, Master Jack. page 136A body must needs have a tongue that goes by steam, to satisfy you and Master Frank. How ever Mrs. Owen can keep hers going all the afternoon and evening is more than I can make out."
"Yes, Jack dear," agreed Nora, "let us tell stories to each other, until the little ones have finished their tea, and that will rest Aunt Owen."
"Girls' stories, indeed," said Jack, somewhat contemptuously; "all about dolls, I suppose, or their new frocks."
Cathy and Nora drew their chairs closer together as if to show they were prepared to stand up for their rights, and darted some very flashing glances at the contemner of their sex; but before they could express their indignation, peace-making little Georgie said in his sweet, clear voice, his face looking so droll, with eyes twinkling with fun, but keeping his mouth as grave as possible, "Ladies and gempemen, I have written a short, true fairy story; it's only got five chapters, and if you like I will read it to you now."page 137
"That's right, Georgie," said both the little girls together. "Did you make it up all yourself? "
"Fire away, Georgie!" shouted Jack; "but mind you shut up directly those little beggars have done stuffing themselves."
Georgie felt there was no time to be lost, so he mounted up on his chair, thrust his hand into the pocket of his knickerbockers, and drew forth some crumpled pieces of paper with pencil scrawls all over them. These he smoothed as carefully as possible, cleared his throat, and read aloud as follows.1
The Three Princes: A fairy tale for young people.
Once upon a time there was a king, whose fame was spread far and wide, and his name was Zeber-page 138had. Well, to go on with my story, he had three sons, whose names were Miars, Charley, and Jack. As soon as Miars came of age he told his father he wished for to travel. And so his father had everything prepared for him, and gave him his best horse, a suit of armour, his trusty sword and shield, also a lance, a battle-axe, and a dagger; and he had a hundred knights for his attendances; so he set out.
Well, in my last chapter, I said that the eldest son set out with all his attendances. He soon came to a thick forest. Well, there he lost all his attendances. He wandered on and on, until he came to a brook; feeling very thirsty, he stooped down, but the first drop he drank he turned into a pig, and moaned away over his fate again and again.
Well, soon the second son set out. He was equipped in the same way; so, with all his attend-page 139ances, he soon came to the same forest as his brother had done; where he lost all his men. Well, soon he came to the same brook, where, just as his brother had done, he turned into a pig.page 140
When the eldest nor the second son did not come back, the king said, whoever brought his sons back should receive the hand of his niece. Well, you must know that Jack was deeply in love with Lita, for that was her name; so he said he would go, and his father said he might. He took a good horse and good arms, but only his servant John. Soon he came to a little dwarf, and the little dwarf said, "Please, sir, will you give me a piece of bread?"
"Well," said the Prince, "I will give you a piece, but I have only a very little bit for myself; but never mind." So he gave him a piece of his bread.
As soon as the dwarf had received it, he said, "No, thank you, but I will reward you, by giving you a wish."
"Oh! thank you so much," cried the Prince; "I only wish that I could find my brothers."
"Well," said the dwarf, "they are turned into pigs, but I will give you a wand, and you can turn them back again." And so he did, and Prince Jack went home and married Lita, and lived happily ever after.
By Georgie. The End.
Mrs. Owen and I had stolen into the room just as Georgie commenced to read, but the little man did not mind having grown-up listeners, and went on steadily to the end, though he looked very shy and red long before it was over. "I wish you wouldn't make a fool of me, Georgie," page 141was Jack's only comment. "Catch me falling in love with Lita indeed. I intend to marry Aunt Nancy when I grow up, because she knows such a lot of jolly stories."
"If we mean to finish our Jamaica Christmas Day, we must make haste," said Mrs. Owen; "so let us come into the drawing-room for a treat, and we will leave the very little ones with Nurse here. They won't care for a sad story, and you know I warned you this was going to be sad. When it was told to us we were in a mood to like hearing a melancholy story, because it all fitted in so well with our rather dismal feelings in a distant land on the great, essentially English, festival; but you, you little rosy-cheeked romps, you don't look as if you would care to hear anything which was not intended to make you laugh."
"Oh yes, we do," said Jack, the ever-ready spokesman of the little party; "we like to hear Jolly awful stories sometimes, I can tell you."
"Well, then, listen quietly to me while I try to page 142remember for you what our stranger-guest told us that beautiful tropical night.
"Two little boys lived with their parents in a cottage among the hills not far from Spanish Town. The family had only arrived from England a few months before. Mr. Elmslie was a clergyman, and had been presented to a very good living in the lowlands, but he was too much afraid of the deadly climate of the plains to risk the lives of his only children on their dusty, burntup level, during the summer-heats. So he had taken this pretty little place with its staircase-like paths and spreading cedar-trees, which sheltered the cottage from the afternoon sun. Mrs. Elmslie and the boys were enchanted with their new home, and never wearied of watching the sunset-gun fired from the fort at Port Royal,—a strip of sand stretching out to bar the entrance to Kingston Harbour. To the boys' great delight they could see from their pinnacle-perched home, first the great flaming ball of sunlight touch the shining page 143water-line of the wide horizon; then in breathless silence they used to watch the glowing disk sink slowly, slowly down out of sight, till its upper rim vanished. Just as it disappeared, and while yet long golden rays of sunlight were streaming up against the rosy western sky, there came from the Point where the forts stood, a sudden puff of white smoke, which had time to float quite away in filmy wreaths, away into the bright blue air which quivered with the reflected sunbeams, before 'boom' came the sound of the big gun nearly a minute afterwards, making Artie and Chattie shout with surprise, and rush to ask their Mamma how long it had been since the 'evening gun went off.' 'Quite half-an-hour at the very least,' Artie suggested, but accepted, with equal content, the assurance that it had not been much more than half a minute. Little Chattie, who was only about two years old, had no more distinct idea of time than calling it 'whiles;' thus a short time was, with him, 'a tiny whiles;' and when he heard his page 144mother and brother discussing the time which had elapsed between the sight of the puff of smoke and the sound of the report, he used to nod his curly head gravely, and settle the question by saying—
"'Eesha, half a whiles.'
"The worst of these mountain homes in the St. Catherine Hills is, that they are very lonely. Generally speaking, the dwelling-houses are attached to coffee plantations, or 'walks,' as the negroes call them; and as the properties are of some extent, the distances between the houses are too great for social purposes. But Mrs. Elmslie was fortunate in having one charming neighbour, a Mrs. Grant, who used sometimes to come over to 'the Pines,' as Mr. Elmslie's mountain-cottage was called, and spend a long day with her and the little boys. Mrs. Grant had several children, and as she did not like to leave them all behind at Percy Cottage, she generally brought two with her, seated in basket-panniers, on a mule's back.
"These Coffee-mules' are wonderfully careful page 145and sure-footed, spending their whole lives in plodding up and down the narrow hill-tracks with a great bag of coffee packed on each side. Their chief anxiety seemed to be to keep the bag or sack which was inside from being rubbed against the side of the rocks which arose on one side of the way like a wall, whilst on the other was a sheer descent, whose depth was fortunately concealed from view by the splendid cotton and cedar trees which clothe the mountain sides of beautiful Jamaica. Do you know why the mules are so careful to avoid rubbing a hole in the side of the coffee-bag? I will tell you. Because they very soon found out that if a sharp projection of rock tore a hole in the canvas, all the coffee-berries streamed out on the road with great rapidity. I am afraid they would hardly have been unselfish enough to regret this sudden lightening of their load on account of the waste of the fragrant little greenish nuts; but they were quite clever enough to learn, after one or two accidents, that as soon page 146as the inside bag emptied itself into the road, the balance of the pack was destroyed, and the outer sack, still full and heavy, tipped up the saddle, and generally upset the mule down the precipice. After this had happened once or twice to a coffee-mule, he took very good care to keep well to the edge of the path; and when I rode one, and tried to urge him to go a little nearer to the cliff on the inside of the ladder-path which we were climbing, I found it impossible to do so, as the firm belief had got into his obstinate head that I was a sack of coffee, and must be dealt with accordingly.
"Mrs. Grant therefore had no fears for the safety of little Clara and the pickle Tom, who could never be trusted out of his mother's sight, during their early morning ride to 'The Pines,' and she had gone over there as usual with these two little ones only a few days before the Christmas Day about which I am telling you. Most of the long summer day had to be passed by the children indoors; but they all played about very happily in a cool page 147verandah looking due north, where they could watch the humming-birds flitting in and out of the tall aloe plants outside the little garden enclosure, for but scant level space could be found for turf or flowers in that hilly region. But there is no such thing as bareness in these tropic lands: gardening means pruning there; and Nature is exquisitely beautiful when left to herself to cover a hillside with her own luxuriant web and woof of creepers and shrubs.
"Just without the low garden-fence, and almost hidden from sight by its stone wall, was a large tank about five feet deep, and some eight or ten feet long. This reservoir was intended to supply the house with water for scrubbing and washing purposes, and had lately been filled almost to the brink by the heavy rains which had fallen a week or two before. On its surface Mrs. Elmslie had thrown, just to try an experiment, some seeds of a water-lily bearing a beautiful blossom. The seeds had sunk to the bottom, and liking the slight layer page 148of soil they found there, which had been blown into the tank from the hillside close by, they had taken root, and now covered the centre of the tank's surface with exquisite cup-like flowers. The children had often gazed at the bright blossoms with admiration, and more than once Clara had said:
"'Oh, how I wish I could get some of those flowers for my mamma to make a picture of!'
"'We can't get them except with a long stick, and when old Franz is with us.'
"'Mamma said we were never to get over this wall by ourselves.'
"That settled the question for Clara, but not for Tom or Chattie, who were both rather naughty and disobedient, poor little fellows, and especially liked attempting to do anything which they had been forbidden.
"On this sad day the children were allowed to go out and play under the shade of the cedars rather earlier than usual, and Mrs. Hooper, the fat black nurse, received many injunctions not to page 149allow them to go beyond the low stone wall which enclosed the garden. Now Mrs. Hooper was very trustworthy and devoted, except when she had a toothache, which was not an unusual malady with her, poor woman; and on this particular day she was afflicted with what Shakespeare calls a 'raging tooth.' In vain she tied up her head and stuffed all sorts of horrid compounds, made chiefly of pepper, into the hollow, decayed shell which was all Time had left of her beautiful strong white tooth. Nothing seemed to ease the dreadful torture; and as the children were playing happily in the garden, building little gipsy houses for themselves out of fallen twigs and broken sticks, Mrs. Hooper thought she would go into the house and get one of the other servants to put some creosote into the tooth. Before she left them, she charged Artie and Clara to see that neither Tom nor Chattie strayed beyond the garden, and desired them to call her if the two little ones proved troublesome.
"All this time Mrs. Elmslie and Mrs. Grant were page 150sitting quietly indoors reading and working, or chatting about the difficulties of managing children and servants in Jamaica.
"'Tom is dreadfully wild and naughty,' said Mrs. Grant, 'and so venturesome, as his old nurse used to say. You know he is not three years old yet, and I assure you he is in every kind of mischief all day long. I am wretched if he is out of my sight. Where is he now, I wonder?'
"'Oh, you may be quite happy about the little monkey,' replied Mrs. Elmslie. 'Hooper is with them, and she is accustomed to keep a sharp eye over Chattie,. who will be quite as great a pickle when he is as old. He gets through a good deal in that line now, but Artie looks after him very carefully.'
"So the afternoon wore on until the long shadows warned Mrs. Grant that it was nearly time to think of her homeward ride; for Percy Cottage must be reached in daylight. There was no trusting to twilight, for darkness follows sunshine with hardly half an hour between, in the tropics.page 151
"'We will have tea now,' said Mrs. Elmslie; 'if you will call the children in, I will go and order a nice supper for them.'
"'Where are they?' asked Mrs. Grant; 'I don't see them under the cedars.'
"'Oh, they can't be far off,' replied Mrs. Elmslie; 'I heard their little voices five minutes ago.'
"The two ladies walked out under the shade of the wide-spreading cedars; there they saw in freshly-plucked flowers already fading, and miniature wigwams of sticks and leaves, abundant evidence that the children had been there; but all was silent, though Mrs. Grant called anxiously, 'Tom, where are you?'
"'Surely you are not frightened?' Mrs. Elmslie said, laughingly, to her friend; 'they can't get into any mischief here; and old Hooper is with them: 'but even as she spoke Mrs. Hooper came towards them from the house, in rather a dishevelled state as to her turban, crying—
'"Miss Clara, Mass' Artie, where dem pickny page 152got to? Oh, me good Missis! dis toot gwine for kill dis old ooman; my king! my king!'
"'Where are the children?' answered Mrs. Grant; ' when did you see them last?'
"'Missis, me went get some tuff for dis toot, him altogeder too bad.'
"'It is very shady round here,' said Mrs. Elmslie, leading the way to another and rather more distant part of the garden; but even as she spoke her heart died within her, as she remembered how low the wall was and how steep the hill on its other side—and then the tank! She hurried on, and her first feeling was one of deep relief and thankfulness when she saw both Artie and Clara,—rather muddy and dirty, it is true, but still safe and sound, standing close to the low wall, beneath which was the tank, leaning over the stone boundary and dabbling-in the water, apparently with long sticks.
"'Those children have made their clothes damp, and must go in and change at once,' she cried to Mrs. Hooper, who was following her at a little dis-page 153tance. 'Tell Mrs. Grant they are here;' but even as she spoke Mrs. Grant came running up, saying still more anxiously—I
"'Yes, I see; but where is Tom?'
"At the sound of their mothers' voices both the children turned round, showing deathly pale faces and wide open staring eyes, quite unlike their happy, joyous countenances.
"'Oh, Mamma!' screamed Clara, 'come quick; Tom is asleep in the tank, and We can't wake him!'
"'And Chattie, too,' called out Arthur; 'make haste—make haste, Mamma!'
"You may imagine with what rapid steps the two unhappy mothers, already guessing the worst, hurried towards the children, who had resumed their efforts with the long sticks. When Mrs. Grant and Mrs. Elmslie came up to the wall and looked over its low coping-stone, they saw a sight which I hope none of us mothers may ever behold. On the surface of the tank, among the broad green leaves and page 154pink and white blossoms of Mrs. Elmslie's favourite lily, floated a little sunburnt straw hat; and, as if they had stranded on the shore, two large freshplucked leaves of a dwarf Sabal palm lay half in and half out of the water.
"'What are those? where are the boys?' asked Mrs. Grant and Mrs. Elmslie, almost in the same breath.
"'Those are their boats, Mamma dear,' sobbed poor Clara, who had given up her fruitless poking in the deep cistern, and, flinging her stick away, buried her head in her mother's gown. The two mothers, not daring to look at each other, bent over the low stone wall, and there saw—what at first they could not see for the shadow of the lily leaves—two little figures in the water, one quite at the bottom of the tank, and the other caught midway by the slender lily stems. They looked just as if they were asleep: peaceful and quiet they lay at the bottom of their perilous playground.
"I will not tell you, dears, of how the two poor page 155mothers grieved and cried over their lost darlings, for you can easily imagine what your parents would feel if any accident happened to anyone of these precious little heads; but I will tell you how it came about, that you may see that disobedience was the origin of the dreadful death of these two children, just as surely as it caused the first sin in this beautiful world of ours.
"Artie gave a very clear narrative, and Clara, when appealed to, bore him out in every particular. It seems that after they had built their tiny houses they wanted some palm leaves with which to thatch them, as the negroes did; and knowing where some broad leaves grew, they set out to gather them. Mrs. Hooper, as we know, had left her little charges, and the two elder ones endeavoured faithfully to carry out her injunctions not to go beyond the garden wall. But, alas! the right sort of leaf for thatch could not be found anywhere except just below the tank. The children intended only to cut what they wanted, page 156or rather to let Artie (who was the only one boasting of a pocket knife) cut as much as he thought sufficient, and then hasten back to the cedar-trees and the half-finished hut. But Chattie and Tom found such great delight in wandering among the tangled vegetation of the hill slope, that Clara and Artie had much ado to induce them to come towards the garden, and finally-suggested that they should come and float some of the big leaves on the tank. This unfortunate proposal was met with great glee, and they all four reached the forbidden spot in safety.
"'We never meant them to do it, dear Mamma,' sobbed Artie; 'we thought, when we got them there, that we could coax them on into the garden, but they would not come. At last Tom got tired of seeing his leaf float by itself, and said he would get on it and sail right away back to England; and Chattie said yes, he would do the same: and then when Clara and I found how naughty they were going to be, we came quite away and left them; page 157and then when we went back again presently to see if they had wet their pinafores, we found that the leaves had no one on them, and that Chattie and Tom were both fast asleep at the bottom of the tank, and we tried to get them out and couldn't Oh! Mamma, don't you think they will ever wake up again?'
"But you know, my darlings, without my telling you, that they never did wake up again, and that was what made us so sad as we listened to the story that Christmas evening."
1 Copied word for word from the MS. of a seven years old author, with only a few corrections of the phonetic spelling.