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A winter picnic: the story of a four months' outing in Nassau online

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This morning she told another member that she
" stopped just obah de hill in Bain Town." Such is
the state of mind of the soberest small-fruit woman I
know. Is it lack of veracity ? I question. Far rather
would I think that Poser is ignorant of location, or
that she did not understand. We asked the distance
to Fox Hill, and its direction, of Aunt Isabel. " To
de east'ard, my darlin', an' I lay it's 'bout a mile —
not more furder dan a mile an* half nohoWy missus."
Our intelligent carpenter said he should " lay it at a
mile." It was March 17th. Fancy Beatrix in her
butterfly cambric that she wore last August, and me
in my black and white checked gingham. We both
had twelve-cent palmetto hats, trimmed with muslin,
and ribbons tied over the broad brims thereof. Trix
carried her tin botanical box, and I, a light palmetto
basket, trowel, and knife. Also we had smoked glasses
to wear if needed, for sometimes the glare from the
white roads, and the radiated heat from the walls is
trying. Thus equipped, we stepped lightly away
through the Arch over Government Hill, down the
road that leads to Grant's Town. In this interesting
place everybody was out of doors, of course, — chick-
ens, pigs, children, and dogs tumbling around toge-
ther in the stony yards, under the cabins, — which are
usually set up about three feet from the ground, — and
in the streets. " Ahsk de lady fah coppah, Sammy,"
or Johnny, or Mandy, was a frequent adjuration. A
big girl of sixteen bounced out of a house, and called,
" Gi' me tuppence, missus ? " We have fallen into

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A WINTER PICNIC, 91

German conversation upon these occasions, and we
hurl long Meisterschaft sentences at random. I'm
afraid our patient FrduUin would shrug her shoulders
were she by the roadside. We wanted to see a mango
tree, and a woman went a long distance out of her
way to " carry " us there. Another gave us sapodillas,
that we might see if we didn't want more, and showed
us " alligator peers," which are not yet " full." As
usual, a flock of children followed in our rear, and as
often as we stopped to gather a fern, or pick an es-
pecially fine head of wild-coffee, they would dart up
with whole handfuls of ferns and coffee. At last we
left the thatched cabins behind us, and our rear-guard
fell away, with curiosity sated.

The road was between walls ; upon one side a co-
coanut plantation, on the other uncleared land. What
a tangled growth of strange shrubs and vines ap-
peared to our eyes ! There was the wild tamarind,
with leaves resembling a honey-locust, and just now
the tender foliage was pink and red and brown; there
was the wild sapodilla, with its curious mauve flowers ;
others we did not know at all; there was a wild cherrj^
a shrub with clusters of blossoms running through all
gradations of color from white to dark-red ; wild
coffee, of which we can never see enough; a lovely,
blue-spiked flower, followed by pretty orange berries.
Next came a sturdy vine, if you can call anything a
vine that doesn't twine, or have tendrils, or even
regular leaves for that matter. It had a slender, wiry
stem, no larger than a fine knitting-needle, and every
two or three inches apart on this stem were whorls of
fine, needle-like leaves two inches long. It suggested

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92 A WINTER PICNIC.

a glorified asparagus, and made us think of sedges,
and it grew up over the bushes in lengths of ten or
twelve feet. They call it *' Old Man's Beard."
Presently a little shriek of joy escaped from Trix, who
was in advance, and I, following her outstretched
hand, saw a passion-vine waving its standard from the
top of a high bush. It had lovely, dark-red blossoms
and many buds ; the bush was stiff and thorny, and the
vine too high for even my long arms to reach. A good
old auntie must have heard us bewailing our sad fate,
for from her bit of garden close at hand she brought
a crooked piece of sugar-cane, and helped us to secure
the coveted prize. The people are so kind and
obliging always, that we cannot help liking them very
much. On we fared, finding even choicer plunder in
the various " air-plants " that were perched sociably
all over the low bushes. Three separate kinds we
found to bring home and tie on our bananas, where
they go on growing contentedly, and by and by we
shall have them in flower. Real air- plants, or epi-
phytes, are these, for they simply twist their few roots
around some friendly twig, that they may have a local
habitation; then they take their life from the air alone,
storing up dew and rain in the bases of their cunningly
curved leaves. One kind was pale-green and suc-
culent, another curiously streaked with darker green,
and its leaves were arranged in a spiral. We
chose, and chose, and chose, till we could take no
more. Then, wonder of all, we stumbled upon some
real hot-house orchids. Great masses of them grew
upon decaying stumps, or small logs; colonies of them
stood upon convenient limbs, and one, some sort of

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A WINTER PICNIC. 93

oncidium I should say, gave us its tall spike of yellow,
and brown flowers, looking exactly like " freakish
butterflies." We fell into a long silence as we hus-
tled out our duplicate air-plants, and tenderly filled
their places with orchids, till at last Beatrix said, "Isn't
it ridiculous, Barb, but all this afternoon I've been
haunted by two lines out of some old hymn, just these
two, —

" Prophets and kings desired it long,
But died without the sight."

" That's not at all ridiculous," I said, " haven't we
always had a weakness for orchids ? " and then I
told her how my ** hant " had been,

'' Sweet fields beyond the swelling flood
Stand dressed ia living green,"

along with another couplet equally apropos to Nassau,

** There everlasting spring abides,
And never-withering flowers."

Next we came upon an eerie thing, that I truly
thought was a snake at, first. It was a little larger
than my thumb, cylindrical except for two grooves
that flattened it, of uniform size for ten feet, with no
branches, no leaves, no buds, not anything except
that at the very slight angles which occurred about
five inches apart, a stiff brown wire projected for an
inch. " Dot's worm-plant, missus," said an obliging
passer-by. " We gives it to little babies in de young
moon." As we went on we gathered rare and
dainty ferns from the honeycombed surface of the
rock. In the little pockets they had sprung up as if
by magic, growing with all the grace and beauty that
is the birthright of the fern, which Thoreau says

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94 ^ WINTER PICNIC,

" Nature made for pure leaves, just to see what she
could do in that line." By what subtle alchemy
tender roots can transmute limestone into such airy
forms must always remain a marvel. We came upon
another orchid that simply sent its bare flower-scape
out of the hard rock, and we wielded the trowel, and
bore away its tuber. Then came ferns, and ferns, and
orchids and orchids, till we couldn't bear any more.
For a mile, at least, we had passed no cabin. People
constantly met us carrying heavy burdens of wood
upon their heads, all moving towards Nassau. Twice
we saw little babies tied upon their mothers'
backs with pieces of coffee-sacking. Small boys
wore only one thin and sadly abbreviated garment,
and Beatrix never failed to laugh at the curious little
" bosoms " that adorned the front. If any of them
chanced to wear a second ga;rment, it was a waist of
some description. We trudged on for at least two
miles of this lonely road.

" Is it far to Fox Hill ? " we asked an old wood-
woman.

" Oh, yesy, missy, — good, longy way."

" Can we go on so," motioning ahead, " and find a
road that will take us back to the city ? "

" Oh, yesy, missy. Go lilly mo' faddah so^ two
road, — you settey face so^ — you go town."

On we tramped, with fresh courage, for half a mile,
when we came to a side-road that seemed to have
been newly made, for no trace of wagon-track was
visible over the small, sharp stones. Do you think
we would risk even our stout walking-boots upon
such a thoroughfare ? It was worse than the rockiest



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bit of Cape Ann. We turned about and trudged
ignominiously back over the long miles, foiled as to
Fox Hill, but triumphing in our spoils.

Oh, I must tell you that the gooseberry-tree in the
next yard has flowered. The little flowers are &n
stems twice as long as currant stems, and the tree is
covered with them ; they even grow out of the trunk
way down to the ground. Nothing is more surprising
than the rapid growth of vegetation. When we
arrived, the almond-trees were arrayed in dark red
leaves, which one day came fluttering down, but in
ten days new leaves appeared, and it seems to me
that they were in full foliage again in three weeks.
The leaves are thick, dark-green, and shining, re-
minding one of a rhododendron many times enlarged.
We are still delighting in roses, and roses of our very
own. Every morning we pick handfuls of them, and
after lunch there are more fresh-blown ones. Was it
not provident in us to bring some potpourri jars down
here, where roses and orange-flowers do abound ?

These botanical prowlings of ours are hard upon
Benita, for she will paint everything; but she is grow-
ing plump — and actually sunburns very nicely.

March 22.
We went yesterday to St. Matthew's, which boasts of
being the oldest church edifice on the island, dating
back to 1800, and it is really very quaint. Concrete
floor, with wood under the seats, so that one steps up
into the pews; queer old chairs; rounded end of church
gave a chancel ten feet wide and only four deep ; gar-
net velvet hangings of altar were trimmed with strips

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96 A WINTER PICNIC.

and borders of drawn work, that looked like rare and
beautiful lace; old-fashioned, three-legged stand, cov-
ered by white linen with more drawn work, and the
same lovely work adorned the sacramental napkin.
We had a good little sermon on charity, and good-
singing from a well-trained choir. The church is full
of memorial tablets, and stands in an ancient burial-
ground. I am advised by the Almanack, in which I
implicitly trust, that " the windows are in the early
Norman style." We walked about under the budding
oleanders, and spelled out inscriptions that have been
dimmed by the long years since they were chiseled.
Most of the tombs resemble high, broad chests ;
occasionally a tablet is just above the surface, and
there are a few standing upright and a few in the
shape of " monuments." Reading the inscriptions
leads one to conclude that since these people have
gone, little virtue or worth can possibly be left upon
the earth. One, in Spanish, had underneath it this
translation : " Bury here my body, for the earth,
the mother of all, covers what she has produced.
Beloved children, faithful husband, recommend me to
the divine mercy."

A negro, in natural costume, was digging a grave
with an axe. It takes all day, Lemuel says. The
soil in this place was about a foot deep, and the grave
is four feet in depth when completed.

Beersheba, March 24.
It rains ! it rains ! but we fear it will not rain long.
We want rain on our "garden stuff" and on our
roses, and on the oranges. I ought to be sewing in

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the sleeves of a dress, but when I think of you, poor
weather-bound people, I feel as if I must tell you that
Paradise exists, that so there may be pith to your
imaginings and longings.

We paid seventy-two cents apiece for the privilege
of reserved seats at a concert, in the Church Hall
opposite, where there is a school of boys every day.
It was for the benefit of a Cornet Band, and was
advertised as " under the distinguished patronage of
His Excellency and Mrs. Blake." We went over at
the proper time — eight o'clock — and after much tribu-
lation on the part of the fussy, bungling usher, were
seated in our chairs, which gave a good view of the
unadorned hall. There was no glass in the windows,
only inside shutters. Chandeliers were there, with
candles in queer, vase-shaped chimneys ; a grand
piano bore one bouquet, and two others dangled
down from the leader's music-stand. With palms, and
ferns, and vines, what a bower of beauty might have
been made ! We. had barely time to interchange these
sentiments before the whole audience arose and sang,

" God save our gracious Queen,
God save our noble Queen,
God save our Queen ! "

and then sat down. It was comical in its effect,
though an expression of loyalty to the powers that
be ; and it marked the advent of the Governor's party,
who had stepped in hatless, bonnetless, gloveless, in
a decidedly informal fashion.

Well, the cornets blew, the drums sounded, a terri-
ble " March " smote upon the air, and the audience
applauded. Applauded, did I say ? Went wild is

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truer, for they stamped, they clapped, they pounded
on floor and chairs with canes, they whistled and
they yelled in such an impartially demoniac way after
each " song,** as they styled a vocal solo, duet, or
chorus— that I came to dread the close of any
number. I have been in many mixed audiences ;
but I never heard such noise from human beings.
The singers, on the contrary, were subdued to the
last degree. There were twenty-four of them about
the grand piano, and, remembering similar amateur
concerts in our own music-loving town, we were
struck with the marked difference in the bearing of
the performers. Here, every face was composed into
a quiet that was awful to see ; no vivacious, spark-
ling, animated countenances, but a settled woe
appeared to weigh upon the exuberance of youth,
and the young men looked as if they would be thank-
ful to disappear through the singers' platform. The
leader, a courtly man, wielded his baton with grace
and effect. At the piano was the talented organist
of the cathedral, a lady of sixty years, perhaps, who
looked as if she had just sat for one of the fust
daguerreotypes, with hair combed down over her
forehead — and did she wear puff-combs? These
people sang like seraphs. The choir gave four
choruses charmingly — " Hardy Norsemen," " Blow,
gentle gales," " Sands of Dee," and chorus from
" La Fille de Madame Angot'* There were two
duets and ten solos upon the program, but each and
every one of them was encored lustily, and a response
compelled. " M' appari " from Martha was given by
a fine tenor in some unknown tongue, — certainly not

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in Italian " as she is spoke " in the concert-room.
The audience thirsted for humorous song, and some
sorry specimens were given by a man who couldn't
sing, but who could make wonderful twists with his
facial muscles, and drop words faster than he twanged
his banjo strings. Let me give you a specimen of
the humor that enchants a Nassau audience, for I
happen to remember the chorus of one of his songs.
It ran thus : —

'' For the bulls woant bellow and the cows woant low,
The hens woant cackle and the cocks woant crow,
The turkeys woant gobble and the geese woant quack,
And they never, never will till vat Jane comes back."

As a whole, we enjoyed the concert. The choir *
was in admirable training, and the soloists were very
pleasing in manner as well as in song. It looked a
little odd that each of the latter took the leader's arm
as if going out for an evening stroll. Their talent
lies in vocal music rather than in the command of any
instrument.

We saw a hen on the turtle counter in the fish
market this morning, and I said to Aunt Jamaica,
whose stand is very near :

'* Do tell me what is the matter with that hen ? "
for her aspect was most strange.

" Oh, missus, she is jes* come from out-island, 'n'
she sea-sick. Tide verrah low, missus." Since then
we have seen another similar fowl, and find that her
feathers were put on wrong-side-up, so that they curl
away from her body. Probably they are natives of
some hot island, where close-lying plumage would be
as oppressive as wool to a tropical sheep, which have

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nothing but a little coarse hair, and are never
shorn.

Our marketing this morning resulted in some
steak, half a cabbage, a quart of chicken corn, let-
tuce, radishes, beets, twenty-four bananas, sapodillas
and tamarinds. Our consumption of fruit verges on
the supernatural, but never again shall we buy sugar
bananas "three for a cent " — think of it! or pines for
four cents. We sent Lemuel home, and set off to ex-
plore the vicinity of Fort Fincastle, a curious old ruin
on the ridge east of the hotel, erected in 1789, and
now used simply for a signal station. It is not large
and imposing like its sister Charlotte, but very queer
and usually likened to some kind of queer paddle-box
steamer, I believe, though how its high walls running
eastward to an acute angle are like a steamer I can
not see. A few rods further east we came out to the
iop of the Queen's Staircase, a flight of sixty steps
cut out of the solid rock. The approach to them,
which is many yards long, is also quarried out. As
we passed a little corner shop we heard a school-room
hum, and asked if we might enter. A very tidy
colored woman was training the youthful minds of
twelve small girls and one diminutive boy. All were
clean and very bright looking. Each girl had a
sponge and a cloth tied around her neck, and frequent
were the adjurations to each other, " Gertrude, clean
your slate," ** Seera, [Sarah] clean your slate," ifor at
the time of entrance they were busy " doing sums,"
and continually running to a multiplication table
written on brown paper that hung over their bench.
I was especially impressed by the coiffures of these dam-

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A WINTER PICNIC. loi

sels, for all were elaborate and no two alike. That of
Florentia was striking. The portion of her tresses
that would be given up to bangs in America was
braided in five little tails ; the ends of these came
half-way down her forehead, and wer^ tied together
by some means quite unseen. Then a very straight
parting was made down to the nape of her neck ;
four triangular plots were laid off upon either side of
this highway, and from the center of each one of the
eight triangles projected a short, stiff braid. I could
lay out a ground-plan of that head ! We had to see
their slates, and praise their copy-books, and hear
them sing " Kind words can never die"; and didn't
we fervently wish that little Americans could sing half
as well ? It was a private school, and the tuition was
nine cents a week !

Near by rose the hum of another dame school,
which we asked permission to enter. Here was a
group of boys and girls, — mixed as to color ; a lively
place where the cast-iron discipline of our vaunted
free schools was entirely unknown. A lesson in arith-
metic was going on. Our teacher propounded the
question, "What are compound numbers?" Then,
without pausing, she dashed into the answer, leaving
an occasional ellipsis to be filled by her youthful
charges in concert. The answer being thus achieved,
the instructress repeated it again by herself. During
the recitation she was continually breaking off to
glower at some luckless urchins near, and to say — or
to shout rather — " 'Bt-have yourselves, can't you ? *
One persistent little fellow, who haunted her with his
slate, was forcibly addressed : " Go back ! Sit down,

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Io2 A WINTER PICNIC,

will you ? Do your own sum." And then she would
grab her bell, and ring it for order. In an instant she
would go on with her class, all sweetness and encour-
agement to a stumbling reader, — " Speak up now,
darling," "Louder," "Not too fast"; and then in
apology to us she remarked of the reader, " She went
through with it beauXx-iwWy to me this morning.
She's a little bashful now."

I don't feel at all qualified to sit in judgment on a
Nassau school. Perhaps if I had never been off a
small island, and only communicated with the living
world at long intervals, I should lose all energy. I
am sure that antiquated school-books, and chalk in
the lump, would so reduce me that I couldn't even
say, " ^t-have yourselves ! " Children are a very sub-
dued set here. As Beatrix says, " They have the clim-
ate, and we have the brains." The only marvel is
that they even learn the multiplication table.

Don't you wonder, dear housekeepers, how we
exist without a cellar, a dumb waiter, a refrigerator,
and a water-cooler ? We have nothing to keep in a
cellar, so that disposes of one of the northern essen-
tials. " Damp, unhealthy places," they are termed
here. Some one asks about all these bare floors.
Our washerwoman, who avers that she was " brought
up in a house 'n' train all correc' by white folks " sent
me a scrubber whom she thoroughly indorsed. " Wen
I smell de pine, I know de lady a good scrubber,"
said Mary Lightbourn ; so I sent off the artists one
breezy morning, and prepared to keep an eye upon
my servant, Mandy Want. The " lady " appeared, a
" fine figger of a woman," clad in a stiffly starched

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pale-blue print gown that trailed grandly in her wake,
— so majestic a personage that I was greatly awed by
her presence, yet I plucked up my courage, and tried
to appear as if dignified scrubbers, like her, were an
every-day event to me. First, I had to give her
" thrippence *' to go and buy a certain kind of blue-
speckled soap that she considered essential ; second,
she wouldn't use my good orthodox scrubbing-brush ;
and what do you suppose she insisted on ? You can't
guess, and I may as well tell you that Lemuel was dis-
patched to the fish-market for two-cents' worth of tur-
bot-skin. While waiting for this, she asked me in a
stage-whisper for " some apartment " where she could
change her " appar'l." I directed her to the vacant
attic, from which she descended shoeless and stock-
ingless, with a yellow calico jacket greatly patched
upon by divers other colors and fabrics, and a scanty
skirt of coffee-sacking, that was remarkable for its
brevity. Then down upon her two stout knees went
the transformed " lady," with a pail of cold water, a
cloth, and the rough fish-skin. She scrubbed and
she scrubbed, and she washed, and she dried, while
every now and then she slapped the floor exactly as if
it were a refractory child ; and all that she did from
9 A.M. till 12:30 was to scour the drawing-room and
veranda. Yet I ought not to complain, for every
vein of the wood seemed fairly alive with her polishing.
She pretended to ask seventy-five cents a day, and said
that she wanted a dollar for the work she did ; yet she
was entirely satisfied, I am sure, with thirty-six cents,
which is the usual price.
The funny expressions we hear are countless.

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104 ^ WINTER PICNIC,

Fruit is never ripe, but " full," and school is " full "
when it opens: our boatmen wait " on " us, not " for'*
us ; we " catch " a chicken when we buy it ; we
buy " swelled " guavas for jelly ; we " meet up '*
with people ; a shower is a " squall **; a seamstress
" tasted '* my sleeves instead of binding them. When
they offer anything for sale they generally use a nega-
tive, as " You don' wan' no cook ? " " Not no tings
fah soup ? " A woman showed us some shells, — the
curiously marked " mickery-mockery," the polished
** fillymingo's tongue," and the " cockyroach wing."
" What does make these curious stripes ? " I said.
" Oh, I don' know, missus, 'less de Mahstah make it
so. He make all things in a myste'ous way."

" But what are the disadvantages of Eden ? " some
one asks ; and I scan our situation to answer you in

all good faith, my dear E , that I can find none

greater than the lack, or scarcity, of milk. As we make
no desserts, and need none, preferring fruit to any-
thing ever yet beaten, stirred, boiled, or baked, the use
of milk is reduced to the tempering of tea and coffee,
though I might use the real article on hominy if I
could get it. It is very true that many of you would
not be contented a fortnight here. You would miss
postal privileges for one thing. We miss them — in a
general way. But we are not frittering away time
and brains over daily papers, or many weeklies either,
only two having followed us on our outing. We miss
— oh, how pleasantly — the mighty current of free
literature that brims our waste-basket at home; we
miss the tramp, and the book-agent, who has made


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Online LibraryJ DickinsonA winter picnic: the story of a four months' outing in Nassau → online text (page 7 of 18)