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BOOK II CHAPTER I THE LAND OF PROMISE
The comet was again visible on the ensuing night, but the horrors of sea-sickness were too acute, the misery of the passengers far too intense, for them to care greatly about the future of the world and of themselves. Word had been passed around the ship that the comet would not touch the earth for a few days yet, and that was a blessed respite. In the meantime there was no cessation of the strange agony caused by a rolling, pitching vessel which was traversing nearly six hundred miles of the roughest part of the Caribbean Sea. Some of the emigrants were secretly of the opinion that the comet could not be worse than the ship, and certainly was not just then interfering with their bodily comfort; they had also heard the sailors jesting at their fears, and that gave them a sort of courage, not unmixed with hope. Then the ex-street preacher, in the midst of one of his urgent appeals for the instant conversion of all sinners, had been suddenly taken with a desire to rush to the ship’s side. The people were too ill to laugh, but some of them smiled faintly at the unfortunate gentleman’s mishap. And smiles, coupled with sea-sickness, must inevitably reduce religious terrorism to the ridiculous.

So the second night wore on, and Jones in his cabin, and Susan in hers, slumbered fitfully, taking comfort as they remembered, when they started out of a doze, that the morning would bring an end to their present misery.

As it drew towards morning they found sleep impossible. It was as though they were in a steam bath, the awful, close, clammy heat was something they had never experienced before. They struggled out of their bunks, as did all the other second-class passengers, the perspiration streaming from their bodies. “This must be the beginning of hell,” Jones muttered impiously, though not without a certain sense of terror. He was still sea-sick, and this, and the terrific heat, inclined him to believe that he had now sounded the ultimate depths of human misery. “I wonder why I bother come to this infernal place?” he grumbled, as he struggled into his clothes with the intention of going on deck.

He peeped out of his porthole, trying to peer through the darkness. He heard outside the labourers jabbering as they moved about the ship; the swish of water as it poured from the upper deck into the sea warned him that they were swabbing down the decks, and he guessed that Colon could not now be far away. He hurried out of his stifling cabin and went to call up Susan; she was ready dressed, but pale and weak; she gladly came out, and together they went to the ship’s side, anxious for a first glimpse of the land.

The prospect was sufficiently depressing. The sky above was dark with heavy rain-clouds that hung low and the sea ran fiercely—one vast expanse of slate-coloured water. The rain was falling, not in a torrential shower, but steadily, pitilessly, unceasingly, and at quick intervals the pallid lightning flashed upon the scene, and the low rumble of thunder proclaimed the gathering storm.

“Colon!”

The cry came from one of the watchers on the emigrants’ deck, from one of the many men who had come to seek their fortune in this land of adventure of which the world had heard so much for some four hundred years. “Colon!” The word signified for them the land of promise, the land of their thoughts and dreams for many a long day. The cry was taken up and re-echoed from many lips. The sufferers forgot their sickness. The magic word had charmed it entirely away.

Jones and Susan bent forward quickly, electrified by the shout. In the distance they saw something like a huge bank of cloud on the horizon, and at once they thought it was their destination—Colon at last. By straining one’s eyes one could just perceive it; but it was not Colon, for that town lay fully fifteen miles away. Still, it was part of the Isthmus of Panama, and as the sunlight began to fight its way slowly and painfully through the clouds that hung over land and sea, you could perceive, stretching away for miles and miles, the low-lying inhospitable shores of the country which has one of the most romantic histories in the world.

There the mainland of Panama lay, dreary, ugly, uninviting. One could see the waves breaking listlessly against the shore, just as though the very energy of the water were affected by the terrible steaming heat. There was something unspeakably gloomy about the scene, something that subdued one to silence; and so it was in silence that almost every one on board watched the mangrove-covered banks slip by as the ship sped on her way.

The lightning flickered more frequently, the rumble of the thunder became louder, more insistent. The deckers, who had never undressed during the thirty-six hours of the passage, now began to make themselves presentable for going ashore, and Jones and Susan forced themselves to re-enter their cabins for the purpose of gathering together their possessions. It was daylight now, though the sun could not be seen. As they drew nearer to the town of Colon the rain slackened somewhat. The steamer slowed down, stopped, and lay idly rolling in the dark, oily water, waiting until the officials of the port should come on board.

Susan could now see before her the town of which she had heard so much. To her inquiring eyes it looked a small place: there was a cluster of ugly wooden piers jutting out into the sea and roofed with corrugated iron painted black; behind these was a street or road that ran along the seashore as far as she could follow it, and behind this street rose a line of frail-looking wooden buildings two or three storeys high. But farther away to the right, as one gazed landward from the deck of an incoming ship, could be seen bungalows of a description superior to the buildings near by; these bungalows stood amidst rows of cocoa-nut palms and light green shrubs evidently planted and tended by the hand of man. This touch of tropical scenery redeemed the town from the stigma of utter ugliness. Even so, and in spite of the well-known enchantment of distance, Colon stood confessed a mushroom town, a low, damp, rain-sodden bit of land which accident had made the terminus of a famous railway, and, after that, the site of the Atlantic entrance of the great Panama Canal.

Something like disappointment was expressed on Susan’s face and in her voice as she turned to Jones, saying:

“What you think of it, Sam?”

“Can’t say yet,” he replied dubiously; “howsoever, I am ready to go ashore.”

He started to stroll away, though he had no idea of where he was going to, when a swarthy little man unceremoniously sprang in front of him, caught him by the arm and waved him back. Jones had not observed the little man before. The latter had come on board at the same time as the doctor, and perhaps he thought that Jones wanted to disappear from view when it was necessary that he should be visible. Anyhow, he addressed Samuel in a perfectly unintelligible tongue, much to our young Jamaican’s astonishment, and wildly waved his arms. “What you mean?” indignantly demanded Jones, planting his feet firmly on the deck and refusing to move.

The little man appeared to be annoyed, and again poured forth a flood of Spanish. As Jones could not understand what he was saying, and could not possibly guess what he would be at, he concluded that the man was a fool, and said so loudly.

“You seem to be preposterously ignorant!” he exclaimed, addressing his excited aggressor. “You can’t even talk English! What you call you’self—Chinese or Cuban, or what?”

Now the man could not speak English, but he understood just enough of it to grasp the fact that Jones was insulting him. So he again addressed Mr. Jones in a violent manner, and gave him a backward push.

“Look here!” exclaimed Jones. “It’s about time you finish pushing me, you understand? I am not a Colon man, but an English gentleman, an’ if you touch me again I will box the head off you’ body!”

The little man was not daunted; indeed, he appeared to increase in pugnacity. But just then, fortunately, one of the petty officers of the ship, seeing that a serious quarrel was imminent, interfered.

“You’d better not argue with that man,” he said to Jones; “he’s the Captain of the Port.”

“But that is no reason why he should push me,” argued Jones, bent upon establishing at the outset his claim to deferential treatment at the hands of foreigners. “What he push me for?”

“Thought you were doing something you shouldn’t do, I suppose. They are rather funny, these people. There are all sorts of rules you have to obey down here.”

Jones fell back, not at all pleased with his first experience of Panamanian methods. But he waited quietly till the doctor, who was an American official, came up the second-class deck and assured himself that the passengers there had all been vaccinated at home and were suffering from no serious complaints. It took a longer time to examine the deckers: the doctor was very strict with these. But it was all over at last; the officials of the port boarded their respective launches and sped away (Jones following the launch of the Captain of the Port with eyes expressive of unmitigated contempt), and then the ship began to draw towards the dock. The gangways were shoved out, word was passed that the passengers were free to go ashore. Susan and Samuel prepared to land, the latter still fuming over his treatment by a little dark fiery man amongst whose serious offences was his utter inability to speak the English language.

On the pier they had to hunt for their luggage, which was mixed with that of other people whose frantic exertions to recover their belongings impeded themselves. But the baggage was assorted at last, and now came the inquisition of the Customs officers. These were quite young men, almost boys, and their slight, emaciated frames, sallow faces, and leisurely movements did not at all appeal to Jones’s sense of what was proper in Government officials. He watched them with amazement as they delved into his boxes and turned up everything, carelessly motioning him to re-arrange his things when they were through. “Sue,” he observed impressively, when the ordeal was over, “this is not a civilized country;” and, having thus announced his discovery, he accepted the offer of a truck-man, who wheeled their trunks to the gate of the wharf and then coolly demanded a dollar for the job.

As this bit of work would not have been worth more than a shilling in Jamaica, if as much, Jones and Susan were scandalized, and protested loudly against the imposition. But the man called a little policeman to arbitrate in the matter. This policeman spoke English of a kind, and the intention of his discourse was to assure Jones that, as he had made no previous bargain with the man, he must pay what the man asked. He said this with all gravity, but with a pronunciation so peculiar that Jones expressed his great anxiety to know at what school he had been educated. It was rather lucky for him that the “policia” did not grasp his meaning.

It was drizzling still, but very slightly. The clouds overhead, however, and the continuous flashes of lightning warned our friends that the downpour might come on at any moment. They hailed a cab (driven by a West Indian), and Jones told the man that he wanted to go to the Canal Commission’s Department of Labour and Quarters. He asked the cabman to drive slowly, so that they might see something of the town as they went on. With their luggage piled in front of and around them they began their ride through the principal street of Colon.

It was a busy thoroughfare. To their left, as they drove towards the Commission’s Department of Labour and Quarters, were the principal stores and shops and cafés of the town, wooden buildings all, painted pink, dull yellow, grey, or light blue, with pointed roofs, broad verandas running round the first and second floors, and a paved piazza running along the whole length of the ground floors. The projecting floors of the verandas above formed a shelter from sun and rain, and the piazzas were thronged with pedestrians. All sorts and conditions of human beings were represented in these crowds—West Indian labourers, East Indian pedlars, Chinese, Greeks; men from every country in Europe; natives of Panama and Colombia, ranging in colour from pure black to a sallow white; Americans—the men with their jackets thrown over their shoulders, energetic, masterful; the women, in cool white dresses and bareheaded, who walked along as unconcernedly as though they were taking a stroll in Broadway. Susan noticed that the Panamanian women were careful to have shawls thrown over their shoulders though their unstockinged feet were thrust into slippers down at heels. No one seemed to mind the rain. The shops were stocked with all sorts of showy goods; the cafés were crowded and business in them appeared to be brisk; the cabs were well patronized, and their drivers abused one another with a fluency of bad language that did not argue much for the vigilance or the good hearing of the Panama police. It was a busy town—that she could see at once. A peculiar town, too, from her point of view, for bordering the street were railway lines, and trains were passing or shunting up and down with a continuous tooting of shrill whistles; while immediately beyond the train lines was the ragged, sea-beaten shore of Colon, destitute of a seawall and ugly. She was not sure that she liked Colon at first sight, yet its bustle, its evident prosperity, appealed to her. Suddenly, and even while Susan was looking at the shops and houses, without turning out of the street the cab passed into that part of old Colon which is known as Christobal and which the Americans had taken over as part of their territory and converted into an American settlement.

Here she and Samuel found themselves in the midst of the bungalows and cocoa-nut trees they had sighted from the sea. There were no shops here, no noise, no bustle; there was absolute cleanliness and a sense of order that formed a sharp contrast to the careless life of the Panamanian town they had just left behind them. Gardens bloomed in front of many of the houses, the sanitation was perfect; the wire-screened doors and windows of the buildings gave them the quaint appearance of huge cages, and behind those wire-screens (a protection against the once-virulent mosquito of Colon) peered many a white face, the faces of American women and children who during the long warm days thought wistfully of their homes in the North. This, to Susan’s mind, looked an eminently respectable locality. “I would like to live here, Sam,” she remarked, “more than in the other part of the town.”

The cab stopped in front of a large building near the end of the street, and Jones jumped out, bidding Susan wait for him. He went into the office indicated by the cabman, where he found some other men waiting. He gave his name, and mentioned that he had been engaged in Jamaica by one of the Canal Commission’s agents, who had promised him quarters in the Canal Zone. “You must have been expecting me,” he observed, with an air of consequence.

“I kain’t say we have,” replied the tall American who attended to him, “but I guess it’s all right. I kain’t give you quarters to-day, anyhow; I’ve got to see what room we have for mechanics. You kin turn into work right here in Christobal to-morrow, an’ when you come I’ll see what we kin do about puttin’ you up.” With that he turned away abruptly to see what another man wanted, and Jones made his way back outside.

Where were they to go to now? It was the cabman who suggested a way out of the difficulty. He knew a place, he told them, where they could get a room for the night if they were willing to pay a dollar for the accommodation. Jones protested that the price was “ridiculous,” but agreed nevertheless to be taken to the place, Susan shrewdly suspecting that they were being victimized by the cabby, who knew that they were strangers. Back they drove into Colon, stopping for a minute at a shop to purchase some bread and cheese. Then the cabman took them to a house at the back of the town, charged them a dollar and a half for the work he had done, and drove away well satisfied with the innocence or ignorance of “dose Jamaica fools.” He was a Jamaican himself, but sophisticated.

The house, in which they secured a room for the night, was a long wooden barn divided into small apartments. Each room had a wooden shutter for a window, and the place had originally been built upon a swamp. The piles driven into the swamp still remained as the building’s foundation; the land behind the house had only lately been cleared by the American authorities and was not yet filled up. So the ground was covered with a sheet of fetid water, and a little behind this the mangrove bushes flourished, dark green and horrible, a sombre background suggesting fever and loathsome ailments even to the least observant mind.

A dank heavy smell of rotting vegetation permeated the air. The room was almost as stifling as the ship’s cabin had been that morning. No sooner had they taken their things inside when the thunder-storm, which had been threatening for hours, burst in full force upon Colon; the lightning writhed like maddened serpents through the blue-black sky, the crash of the thunder was deafening. Susan shuddered with fear. Even Jones looked lugubrious. This was a poor sort of welcome to the land of promise.

They set to and made the best of their circumstances. The room contained a cot, one wooden-seated chair, a table with a tin basin, a ewer of water and a glass, and another table, placed in the centre of the apartment and suggesting by its position that it was intended as a sort of ornament.

Jones, seated on the chair, placed the edibles he had procured on this centre table, and pulled a flask of rum out of his pocket. He offered some of the liquor to Susan, who refused it with a shake of her head. He helped himself liberally, then ate some of the bread and cheese, while she watched him sullenly. She felt downhearted, almost inclined to cry. But the rum had inspirited him, and already he was brighter. “What’s the matter? You sorry you come?” he asked her.

“Not exactly,” she replied; “but I don’t know a soul here; I feel lonely an’ miserable, and dis rain——” She could find no words to express her disappointment. “If I was to stay long in this room, I would dead,” she plaintively concluded.

“Don’t fret,” he cheerfully advised. “To-morrow we will get good quarters, an’ even here will soon be better. From all what I hear about the Americans, they are not the sort of people to procrastinate in improving conditions. As for you, you are all right now, Sue. I am goin’ to make a woman of you. I am more than a match for anything!” He suddenly remembered the comet. “That is, if we don’t dead,” he hastily added, “in which case we had better begin to prepare our soul.”

He relapsed into seriousness again, but not for long: the rum he had taken fought successfully against an access of melancholy brought on by the prospect of early death through the agency of ethereal bodies. He saw with genuine regret that Susan could eat nothing. The bread and cheese he did not like himself. But the rain soon began to fall less heavily, and the thunder became more and more distant. Susan not caring or not able to talk, he waited in silence until only a drizzle remained of the tremendous downpour. Then he and Susan put on their hats and went out into the streets of Colon once more.


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