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CHAPTER V LETITIA’S INVITATION
“I don’t do too badly this week,” said Susan, as, sitting at the threshold of a little room, which was one of a range in a yard, she slowly counted a number of small silver and copper coins which she held in her lap.

“How much you make?” asked Catherine, who sat on a little box near to the door, watching Susan’s addition with interested eyes.

“I make eight shillin’s and sixpence, an’ two shillin’s is owing out to me, all of which is profit. If I did ’ave anybody to go an’ dun for it last night, I would ’ave ten shillin’s an’ sixpence this morning. Next week I going to sell more, for I am goin’ to put more things in the shop.”

“Business is good,” said Catherine, “but it will soon get better; so even if Tom don’t send for you, Sue, you will be all right.”

“Yes, I am independent now,” returned Susan, with a touch of pride in her voice; “but I sick of this life. Every day it’s de same thing. I ’ave to work too hard, an’ sometimes I don’t make as much in a day as I use to spend on car ride when Tom was here. I feel so tired, I can’t even go to church dis morning. An’ yet I have some good frock. I going to save up money meself an’ go to Colon, even if Tom don’t send for me.”

“That is a very good resolution, Sue,” said her father, speaking from inside of the room. “Colon is a better place dan Kingston. I hear dat you can earn money there like water, an’ that’s de place I want to go to. Ef you’ brother could only send me a few dollars, I would give it to you, an’ then you could go an’ send for the whole of we.”

“Yes, sah,” replied his daughter. “I would send for you, an’ mammee, an’ Eliza. Kate could go wid me. P’rhaps Kate would get an intended in Colon.”

“I wish so,” said Catherine wistfully; “de young men in Kingston don’t have nothing.”

“It wasn’t so when I was a young man,” observed Mr. Proudleigh, harking back to the past. “In dose days a man could make plenty money, an’ he treat de females like a king. Me first sweetheart rob me over ten pounds, an’ yet I didn’t miss it. But now a man don’t ’ave ten shillin’s to give a gal, much less ten pounds for anybody to rob.”

“You right,” agreed Susan. “Dis is not the place for me. Colon or Port Limon is the country to go to, an’ if me business prosper I going to save an’ go there.”

She nodded her head determinedly, then tied the money in the corner of a handkerchief, put it in her pocket, and went towards the back of the yard.

Her father came out and sat on the spot she had vacated. He did not like to question Susan too closely, but of Catherine, who was of a milder disposition, he had no fear.

“Kate,” he said, “you t’ink Susan will really save money to go away?”

“So she say, papee,” Catherine answered. “An’ she doing very well. She make ten an’ six this week, an’ she goin’ to make more.”

“That is good,” said the old man. “Ef you go wid her you mustn’t forget you’ ole father, Kate. I don’t want all me children to be away from me when I dead. An’ if you don’t send fo’ me when you go away, I don’t see how I can ever go.”

As Kate saw no immediate prospect of leaving Jamaica herself, she did not pursue the conversation. And both she and her father continued sitting there for some time in silence, gazing at nihility, and thus keeping the Sabbath day holy.

They were still living in a lane, but not the lane in which they had lately lived for fully a year. This one was called Luke Lane, and their yard was situated near the northern end of it, close to North Street. It was some eight weeks since Tom had left, and much had happened in the interval. The first four weeks had been a trying time for Susan, for, even before Tom sailed for Colon, Maria and her mother had heard of his dismissal. They spread the news rapidly and all Susan’s enemies rejoiced without any attempt at concealment. They assembled at the gates of their yards when she passed up and down the lane, and laughed loudly. They made remarks which she knew were intended for her hearing. Maria, remembering Susan’s fatal allusion to her dress, attired herself every Sunday in her most gaudy garments and went to see some people who lived opposite to Susan, so that the latter’s cup of humiliation should be full. She knew that Susan’s establishment could not be maintained long after Tom’s departure, unless some extraordinary piece of good fortune should befall her. This Maria confidently hoped would not happen: she had missed taking Tom away from Susan; but still there was great satisfaction in knowing that if she had lost what she might have had, Susan had lost what she actually had possessed.

Susan endured all these insults with considerable fortitude, and went about her business quietly, keeping her own counsel as to what she intended to do. About a month after Tom had left for Colon, she and her family, aided by a cart, removed what remained of her furniture (for she had sold some), and went to live elsewhere.

They removed late at night, and silently; for Susan’s pride revolted at the very thought of being seen taking last leave of the beloved front house. Removing late at night had its inconveniences, for it was certain to be said that she had left without paying the month’s rent, and without the knowledge of the landlord. Night removals in the West Indies (and they are very frequent) are always attended with this suspicion, a suspicion based upon extensive experience. But in this instance the landlord knew all about Susan’s intention, for she had given him the proper notice, and at the end of the month had gone to him and paid him two-thirds of the rent that was due. As she had been a good tenant, he made a virtue of necessity and generously allowed her to owe him the balance. Yet all this did not prevent it from being circulated in certain quarters of the lane that Susan, true to the principles of many who live in yard-rooms and little front houses, had availed herself of the darkness to cover her rent-escaping tracks.

She heard from Tom before her removal. In his letter he mentioned that the chances were that he should obtain a good situation if he did not fall ill of fever. Like a sensible girl she concluded that his chances of being ill were probably as great as his prospects of getting a job; so she told her aunt, “I better look for meself.” Her way of looking for herself was not original; but it proved successful. Tom had given her two pounds before leaving. She had also saved a few shillings. And this money had come in useful for the setting up of a small business.

She had rented a little shop and had stocked it with the things she knew would sell. The shop was built against the fence, and opened both in the yard and on the lane. It was constructed of odd bits of board and roofed with three sheets of corrugated iron. It could scarcely accommodate two persons. Customers were not allowed inside. They stood in the lane and made their purchases over a counter which was merely a square bit of board cut out of that side of the shop which faced the lane. This counter formed a shutter at night; you fixed it into the opening and secured it by means of an ingenious system of bars and bolts. As thieves might break in and steal, Susan usually removed some of her goods to a safer place at night; the room in which she and her family lived being the only place available to her.

She sold bread and “grater cake” (a cake made of desiccated cocoa-nut stewed with sugar). The prices of this sweetmeat ranged from a farthing to three farthings each, and she did a considerable trade in it. For the children held that a halfpenny spent on a small loaf of bread and a small grater cake yielded abundant satisfaction, and even grown-up people frequently made their lunch off the same articles.

She sold cocoa-nut oil, sugar-cane, mangoes, bananas, and flour-cakes. These last were made of flour and sugar and plenty of baking-soda, were very cheap and filling, and were openly despised by everybody and secretly eaten by all.

She sold Rosebud cigarettes, for that, she wisely calculated, would be a good bait for the boys and men, and she wanted the biggest custom possible.

She sold firewood, and yams and plantains, and gingerbeer. Ice also; and she proclaimed that fact by means of a red flag, hung out diagonally on a pole, and having sewn upon it three ill-shaped letters in white calico which spelt out the word, ICE. She was, in short, a full-fledged higgler, and as she sat in her shop surrounded by boxes and baskets, and little heaps of bread-stuffs, she assumed the important facial expression common to all higglers, though in her case neither ugliness nor slatternliness had set its seal upon her; which alone differentiated her sharply from most of the other women who followed her trade.

There were many of these in the lane. They were rivals, but among them Susan easily stood first. For the stock of none of them was ever worth more than seven or eight shillings, and sometimes not worth even half of that amount. She, on the other hand, had boldly invested thirty shillings in purchases at the start, and the venture had been justified by success.

Her looks helped her. The young men who passed by her shop patronized her and attempted to make love to her; but they were obviously poor, so while she was polite to them she kept them at a distance. Her family was also of great assistance. Her mother made the “grater cakes” and boiled the cocoa-nut oil; her sisters went in the mornings far beyond the northern boundaries of the city to meet the countrywomen coming down to market, so as to buy fruit cheap from them. By this means Susan saved money, an important consideration, for a shilling a day was the very most that she could spend on food for all the family. As for the old man, he rendered no material assistance; but he personally felt that his moral influence upon the situation was immeasurable. With the tattered remains of an old soft felt hat upon his head—he never went without it, for he imagined that it added to his dignity—a pipe in his mouth, and his feet thrust into slippers, he hovered about what he called “de little shaps,” feeling himself the natural protector of his daughter, and the inspiring genius of the family.

He was proud of Susan. The problem of living had presented itself to him with distressing intensity on the night that Tom had announced his intention of going to Colon. He then had seen nothing before himself and his wife but the union Poorhouse, an institution which he thought of with a shudder. He knew he could do nothing to help himself, though he never would have acknowledged that to anyone; so, even though the girls might shift for themselves, he could see no ray of hope for himself and the old woman. Susan, however, had solved the problem by unexpectedly developing commercial instincts; and he reflected that most of her ability must have been inherited from him, since he had never credited his wife with much intelligence.

As he sat this Sunday morning at the threshold of the single room they now lived in, he felt placidly contented. The shop had become a certain source of revenue, and no Maria could interfere with it. He was quite satisfied not to take much thought of the morrow; and the change that had recently taken place in Susan’s circumstances was accepted by him with a temperamental equanimity which could only be disturbed by fear of the almshouse or of immediate starvation.

He looked about the yard, seeing nothing. Such scenes he had been familiar with all the days of his life. It was an ordinary Kingston tenement yard; the low range of rooms, each room being separated from the other by but a thin partition of board; the broken-down kitchen; the water-pipe continually dripping, so that a part of the yard was never dry; babies sitting in little boxes stuffed with rags to prevent the little creatures from hurting themselves; bigger babies creeping about; wash-tubs everywhere; it was what he had always seen in every similar place. The prevailing squalor did not affect the old man and his wife, and even Catherine and his youngest daughter had reconciled themselves to it. But Susan rebelled; she felt that she ought not to be reduced to living in a yard-room.

This Sunday morning, however, she was better pleased than usual, for she saw that if her custom continued to increase she would soon be in a position to save money. Up to now she had been living on every penny of her profits, for the rent of the shop and the room together was sixteen shillings a month. But good luck was plainly attending her, and already she was speculating upon what she would do in the future.

Presently she returned to where her father and Catherine were still sitting. Catherine made room for her on the box, and Mr. Proudleigh, never happy if compelled to remain silent for long, asked her when next she expected to hear from Tom.

“How can I tell, sah?” was her very reasonable reply. “Him only write me once since he gone to Colon; an’ I wants to believe he must be in the hospital. From all dat I hear about Colon, Tom don’t likely to get on there. Him too soft! Kingston is all right enough; but in Colon—so I hear—if you look on a man too hard, him wants to shoot you; an’ if you don’t look on him hard, him wants to take an advantage of y’u. That is not the sort o’ place for Tom.”

“Then how you expects to go down to him?” asked her father. “Ef him is such a young man of unreligable nature, I don’t see how you can teck up you’self an’ put you’self under his protection an’ care.”

Susan laughed scornfully. “I was ever under his protection an’ care in Jamaica?” she asked.

“No,” said Catherine; “but here everything is quiet. Down in Colon a young gurl must ’ave a young man to look after ’er; otherwise there may be boderation. I wouldn’t like to go down by meself that way.”

“I would go,” said Susan decisively. “After all, whatever y’u meet in this world it is you’ luck. If you to dead in Colon, you will dead there. If you to come back to Jamaica, y’u will come back.”

This fatalistic note, struck with such confidence, awoke a responsive echo in the hearts of her hearers.

“You is right,” said the old man. “A man shouldn’t bother him head about what goin’ to happen to-morrow, for him can’t prevent what is gwine to happen. Therefore, sufficient to de day is the evil thereof. You saving money to go?”

“Don’t I tell y’u so a little while ago, sah?” asked Susan, though she knew that the old man would repeat the question every day.

“I don’t mean nothing by askin’ you,” he explained; “only, ef I was you, I wouldn’t put me money into any bank. I hear that bank is a thing that broke every now an’ then; though,” he continued sagaciously, “I don’t see how such a strong place can broke.”

“When a bank broke,” explained Catherine, “it mean that de clerk rob you’ money.”

“Oh! I see! But, even then, I don’t t’ink Sue should put her money in a bank, for if them rob her few shillin’s, what she gwine to do?”

“The Government bank is safe,” said Sue, conscious of superior knowledge. “Nobody can rob it, an’ them give you interest on you’ money.”

“Then you gwine to put yours in de Government bank?”

“Yes, sah; to-morrow morning I goin’ to lodge three shillin’s: it is me first commencement. It’s to help me to go away.—Who that?”

Some one had knocked at the gate, and the person thus addressed loudly answered:

“Me!”

“Who me?” asked Catherine.

“Letitia Samuels: can you hinform me ef Miss Susan Proudleigh resides here?”

Both Susan and Catherine rose simultaneously and rushed towards the gate. They opened it, and a young lady of about twenty, glossily black, fat, not bad looking, and extremely stylish, walked into the yard. She was dressed in a white lawn frock trimmed with any quantity of lace; wore high-heeled shoes and carried a pink parasol. Her hat was a marvel; her cheeks were covered with white powder. She kissed both the girls loudly, said she was feeling “fine,” shook hands with Mr. Proudleigh, and then was taken into the room.

There she met the old woman, who spoke to her, then went outside, with the true West Indian instinct of hospitality, to prepare some refreshment for her.

The room, originally small, was divided into two apartments by a cloth partition, one side of it being reserved for the old people, the other being occupied by Susan and her sisters. Letitia sat in the one chair that she saw, while Catherine and Susan perched themselves on the bed.

Letitia was an old friend. She had known Susan at the elementary school, and Susan had admired and envied her because of her constant possession of small coin. Letitia’s father was a plumber in a good position, and he looked after his daughter well. She was a Roman Catholic, and loudly sang hymns in honour of the saints; Susan, on the other hand, was a staunch Protestant, and strongly objected to “the worship of idols.” But differences of doctrine did not disturb their personal relations, and even Mr. Proudleigh’s efforts to convert the erring Catholic to a truer faith did not sow the seeds of discord. For though his theology (from a Protestant point of view) was perfectly sound, he never ventured on moral admonitions. This was satisfactory, for Letitia still enjoyed the favour of the priests and nuns and other important personages of the Church, and gratefully rejoiced in the present security of a suspected virtue.

She was very excited.

“I didn’t know you move, Sue; I went roun’ to Blake Lane, an’ them tell me y’u move. It was you’ aunt told me yesterday where y’u live.”

“Yes, me dear,” was Susan’s remark. “My intended gone away, so I have to look for meself. Just see where I living now!”

“Cho! never mind! Y’u soon get another intended. Now guess what I come to tell y’u about?”

“What?”

“A picnic. A big picnic! Father Moulder making it at Cumberland Pen to-morrow, an’ it’s only one an’ sixpence for trainage and hentrance to the pen. You ’ave to provide you’ own refreshment; but that can’t cost more dan one an’ six. I want you come. Y’u will come?”

Susan’s answer was interrupted by the entrance of her mother, who brought in a mug of chocolate and a plate containing a big slice of bread.

Letitia spread out her handkerchief in her lap, and rested the plate on it, then took the mug from the old woman. Eating and drinking, she continued the conversation.

“Y’u must come, me child! It’s goin’ to be grand. All the young men in Kingston is goin’. There is to be six piece of music, an’ dancing all day.”

Catherine’s face lighted up, then fell as she remembered that she had no money.

Susan shook her head slowly, the wish to go struggling with her desire to save.

“It will cost me three shillin’s,” she said, “an’ I don’t see how I can manage it.” She paused as a vision of the dancing on the sward rose before her mind’s eye.

“I engage a bag of coal for Thursday, an’ I must have to take it. An’ I ’ave to save money. . . .”

“Cho!” pleaded Letitia. “Come, man! It’s only once!”

The old man, still sitting at the threshold, had overheard the conversation. By way of showing disinterested generosity, he called out:

“Don’t fret you’self about t’ree shillin’s, Sue. Go an’ enjies you’self. Don’t kill you’self, me daughter. You lookin’ thin.”

“Then how is Sue to go to Colon?” asked Catherine, who, seeing no prospect of going to the picnic herself, was not inclined to be enthusiastic about it.

The old man remembered that he also wanted to go to Colon, and immediately regretted his precipitancy. But his words had had their effect. The struggle in Susan’s soul was over. In a moment she passed from a calculating to an excited frame of mind.

“All right!” she cried, jumping from the bed; “I will go.” Excitedly, “I will wear me blue dress, an’ me new straw hat! Lord! I goin’ to dance every dance! I goin’ to enjoy meself! What a thing!”

She was dancing already, and all thought of saving was thrown to the winds.

“Come for me in the morning, Letitia, early,” were her last words to her friend, when she bade her good-bye at the gate.


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