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A Christmas Cake in Four Quarters

Chapter IV. Christmas Day in Jamaica (continued)

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Chapter IV. Christmas Day in Jamaica (continued).

"But," continued Mrs. Owen, not wishing to send the children away to bed with sad faces and wet eyelashes, "it was not fated that Frances and I were to go to bed with tears in our eyes on our first Jamaica Christmas Day. Our guest—who by the way was the doctor who had been called in to see the poor little drowned children—had hardly finished answering the many and irrelevant questions which are so sure to follow a story, be it gay or grave, than we heard a curious distant sound of drums and shrieking fifes, and a great deal of singing and shouting.

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"'Oh, here are the "Johnny Canoes,"' said our father. 'Shut the gates, James; don't let them in.'

"'Oh do, Papa,' Frances and I pleaded, 'do let them in; we want to see them so much; and you know you always let us have just what we ask when we give you a kiss, both together at once—like this!'

"So poor Papa, like other fathers before and since, had to give in, and, as soon as he could speak for kisses, say, 'Very well, James, the young ladies wish it, so I suppose we must let them have their own way. Don't let the people get at any rum, or anything of the sort. Say I will give them some money to-morrow morning.'

"James did not like admitting these revellers by any means; and I must say that Frances and I would willingly have retracted our request as the noise drew nearer, and we saw coming up the street a great crowd of negroes, both men page 160and women, dancing, waving torches, and singing at the highest pitch of their shrill voices. They were not particular what they sang, hymns or anything which came into their giddy heads, minded with snatches of 'Rule, Britannia,' or 'Daddy was a tailor, oh!' Presently, as the centre of the shifting, shouting throng turned the corner of the street and came in sight, we could discern masks and fancy dresses, and above all a sort of triumphal car in the shape of a canoe, filled with gaily-dressed negresses, and decorated with flags and garlands of flowers. It looked like a mixture of the Carnival at Rome, and the best of our May-day sweeps, with a slight dash of Guy Fawkes; only there was a picturesque grouping of colour and a thorough childlike gaiety in the revels, which seldom enters into English merrymakings.

"I must tell you that our house, like most in Spanish Town, was a large upstair one, approached by a high double flight of steps, made page 161of black and white marble, round the balustrades of which every imaginable creeper twined at its own sweet will, until the bannisters seemed to be made entirely of flowers. Then in each niche formed by the staircase, where it separated to lead down on either side, was a small grove of oleander, or South Sea roses. I tell you all this to help you to see us as we stood on the broad marble landing in the centre of the stairs; for we must have looked quite as picturesque and weird standing there under the bright starlight, surrounded by flowers, as our guests, who now came streaming into the courtyard, did. The negro has a keen eye for what is poetical and pretty, so the appearance of the little group leaning over the flowery balustrade, with the fireflies glittering about them, and the white dresses of the ladies gleaming out of the semi-darkness of the background, raised a shout of delighted approval

""Top, till we dance for de young Missy! we page 162show him for true how poor nigger can dance. Strike up, Johnny Canoe;' and Johnny Canoe did strike up, the most jig-like of tunes, and all the assistants at this open-air festival danced as if their lives depended on their exertions, singing and shouting in chorus as they flitted round and round the centre group in the green canoe. The inhabitants of this aërial boat, which was perched high up in a most insecure manner, were the only grave people in the assemblage. Their resting-place was so uncertain, and had such a tendency to topple over, that the gaily-dressed negresses inside were obliged to keep still unless they wished to overbalance the canoe. But they seemed to derive immense satisfaction from contemplating their own finery. They had feathers and flowers and real jewels all stuck into their frizzed-out wool, and Mamma told us that in old days masters and mistresses used to lend the slaves all their ornaments, and often buy their finery for them; and that the different sugar page 163estates tried to rival and outdo each other in the splendour ef their John-Canoeing. But since the Emancipation in '38. this custom has been gradually dying out, and John-Canoe is nearly as much a thing of the past as Gog and Magog, only he has no statue to commemorate his former splendours.

"But to return to that Christmas night, with its soft perfumes, its star-beams filtering down on us through the clear blue ether, and the strong contrast to the peace and beauty above our heads which the flaring torches and fantastic dancing figures made. To the merry jig and universal chorus succeeded a plaintive ditty, founded on some romantic story which had just touched their hearts. I remember hearing one woman, the leader of the soprano voices, chanting something about a white man and a white woman weeping together over a little grave under a mango-tree, and she said, 'Dem tears dey fall like rain, like de pearls round de Missis' neck, same as if you page 164break de 'tring, and de pearl dey all drop down;' and so she went on, inventing her similes as she went. But it was a time for frolic, not sentiment; so the sad song was not encored, and a triumphal march of all the principal characters succeeded it. Round and round the uplifted canoe they paced with a swinging, dancing step, holding each other's hands, whilst the flare and flicker of the torches showed a strange medley of uniforms and fancy dresses—general officers and harlequins, sailors and judges with white wigs, looking irresistibly comic, crowning black and grinning countenances.

"At last Papa thought the fun and noise had gone on long enough, so he went to the top of the marble steps, and called out loud, 'Now, Johnny Canoe, I am getting tired and sleepy, so you must go away and let Massa go to sleep.'

"'Yes, good Massa, Johnny him go right 'way; but Johnny berry tirsty; please, good Massa, give him little drinky drinky.'

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'"No, no, Johnny, Massa can't do that,' cried James, the butler, who was in readiness, 'key of cellar "gone a bush."1 Come to-morrow day, James give plenty quattie.'2

"After a little good-humoured chaffing and laughing James managed to get rid of the rollicky crew, and shut the court-yard gates, having first made the round of the premises with Turk, the great bloodhound, just to satisfy himself that no loiterer was concealed among the bushes with felonious intentions.

"So Frances and I went off to bed to dream of John-Canoes and drowned children, with poor Cousin Paul's grotesque face, all mingled together in the wildest confusion; for we were fairly overtired and over-excited by this our first Christmas Day in Jamaica."

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1 A favourite negro expression for "mislaid."

2 A small silver coin, worth three-halfpence.