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CHAPTER III SUSAN SETTLES DOWN
The clanging of bells awakened Susan and Jones the next morning. The sharp peals came insistently from different directions; from Christobal, where the labourers were being warned that the day’s work would shortly begin once more; from the shunting trains and engines along the water-front of Colon; from the ships in the harbour. The noise pervaded the little town, and soon every one was stirring and preparing for the labours which, however diverse and apparently unconnected, had all a very definite connection with the one great undertaking of Panama, the building of the Canal.

Jones was soon ready to report himself for duty at Christobal. Whatever his failings, shirking his work was not one of them; he had been trained in the workshops of the Jamaica Government Railway, where discipline was well understood and where each man had been well drilled into his work. Jones had grumbled at his chiefs at the railway, but now he thought of them with pride and was determined to show the American bosses that a British subject who had served the Government was in no wise inferior to any man from the States.

He had an early breakfast at the cook-shop where he had lunched the day before, then hurried off to Christobal, where Mackenzie had promised to meet him at eight o’clock. Mackenzie appeared on time, and together they went into the office of Labour and Quarters. Here the arrangements between Jones and the Canal Commission were promptly concluded.

Jones was to work in the railway shop in Christobal as an under-mechanic. He was to receive fifteen, dollars a week, payable every fortnight, and could have free quarters in the Canal Zone, house accommodation being regarded as part of his salary. He gladly accepted this offer of houseroom, but was somewhat disconcerted when Mackenzie asked him if he proposed to leave Susan to live by herself in Colon.

“Can’t she come with me?” he asked, partly of Mackenzie, partly of the American clerk.

“Who is ‘she’?” inquired the latter.

“A female of mine,” he replied—“a young lady I am talking to.”

“Well, you don’t want to talk to a woman all the time, do you?” asked the American. “Is she your wife?”

“Not exactly,” said Jones; “she is a young female under my protection an’ care; I am responsible to her parents for her. We are practically husband an’ wife, though I don’t put a ring on her finger as yet.”

“Nothin’ doin’!” returned the clerk emphatically. “We kain’t allow them sort of things here. You’ve got to marry that female of yours if you want her to live in the Zone. Judge Riggs in the court building near here will fix you right now if you go to him, and then I’ll give you married people’s quarters. Now I guess there’s some other people waitin’ on me, so you’d better make up your mind quick, or get out.”

Jones stared at the clerk, wondering if he should not immediately resent his peremptory manner of disposing of Samuel Josiah Jones, but Mackenzie took him aside and explained to him that by an ordinance issued some time before, in obedience to the outraged moral sentiments of America, it was made compulsory that only married men and women should live together in the Zone. “It is a hard rule,” said Mackenzie, “an’ a lot of people only form that they married. The Americans don’t bother them, unless they can’t help it. But if them find it out, an’ have to take notice, there is a big fine. That’s why I warn you in time. P’rhaps you better married you’ sweetheart, an’ get a comfortable little house in the Zone, like a lot of other Jamaica people.”

“Me?” said Jones. “I let a man force me to marry if I don’t want to do it? No, me brother! It’s an infringement of the rights of the subject, that’s what I call it! I have a good mind to go back to that man an’ tell him I am a British subject an’ born under the English flag!”

“That’s what a lot of people from Jamaica is always sayin’ here,” replied Mackenzie dryly. “Only, some of them say they’re a British object.”

“An’ what the Americans do?” inquired Jones anxiously.

“Laugh at them, an’ say them don’t care what sort of object Jamaicans are. You don’t bluff out an American easy in this place, Jones. Them don’t talk a lot like we do in Jamaica; wid some of them it is a word an’ a blow, an’ a blow first if you cheek them too much.”

“You don’t mean to tell me that them ill-treat a man down here?” asked Jones, beginning to feel alarmed.

“No; not if you don’t interfere wid them. There is plenty of law in the Zone, like in Jamaica. If you mind you’ own business, do you’ work, an’ keep you’self to you’self, you will be perfectly all right. But of course if you abuse them, an’ go about an’ talk all the time about you are a British subject, some of them will hurt you. You meet some of the toughest men in the world down here. I don’t know where them come from!”

“This is a funny place, me friend!” cried Jones indignantly. “They don’t seem to care about a man’s feelings at all. If I was a married man now, what that American say or do would not affect my peace of mind; but I am not a married man. An’ yet I don’t like the prospective view of livin’ in Colon, an’ I can’t leave Sue to live by herself. You don’t think she could come with me as me cousin?”

Mackenzie explained that the Canal Zone authorities drew the line sternly at unmarried cousins.

“Well, in that case Sue an’ me will have to live in Colon, an’ the Americans can keep their house. What am I to do now?”

Mackenzie advised him to report himself at the railway machine shop without delay, and propose to turn in to work the next morning. They would allow him time to get quarters in Colon. He, Mackenzie, was on vacation this week, and would help Jones to find a suitable apartment in a decent part of the town.

Together they went to the machine shop, where Jones beheld in one great building more engines than he had ever seen in his life. They were of all sizes, from the diminutive engines used on soft ground or for conveying materials to the workmen, to the giant locomotives that could pull any number of laden freight cars at high speed. Hundreds of men were at work in this place repairing the engines, the air resounded with the clangour of hammers striking on hard metal, the workers swarmed under and around the iron monsters as though they were ants. Jones was impressed. Here was something he could understand: this mere collection of railway machinery told him, as nothing else could have done, that the building of the Panama Canal was a stupendous undertaking. He allowed Mackenzie to do most of the talking for him, and it was agreed that he should not report himself for service until eight o’clock on the following morning.

This matter settled, they went back to Susan, who had managed to procure some breakfast in the meantime; then the three of them set out on the hunt for a large apartment. The rain, having temporarily exhausted its energies during the night, was not falling now, indeed Mackenzie thought that there wouldn’t be much rain that day. It was gloomy enough overhead, but here and there the clouds had broken, allowing tiny patches of muddy blue to be seen. Colon was wet; but, compared with its condition on the day before, it might almost be said that Colon was bright. The people moving about were in cheerful spirits. Susan herself began to feel lively.

Through the assistance of Mackenzie they secured an apartment in Cash Street, at reasonable terms. Cash Street, probably originally so called on account of its poverty, ran in an east and west direction, was the third long thoroughfare behind Front Street, and therefore was near to the water-front and in the very heart of the populous town. There were numerous cross-streets in Colon, running in a north and south direction and indicated by numbers; the house in which Susan was to live was situated at the corner of one of these crossings: 6th Street it was called. It was a new building, three storeys high, all of wood, with very wide verandas, and painted a bright pink. The ground floor or first storey was devoted to commerce; there a haberdashery shop, a barber’s saloon, and a flourishing public-house found accommodation, and all these businesses did a thriving trade. Susan selected a corner room on the second storey, a room opening on a veranda six feet wide and commanding a view of Cash and 6th Streets. Her inspection of the premises showed her that privacy—even such limited privacy as the poorest might enjoy in Kingston—was not appreciated here. For the tenants kept their doors wide open and were singularly indifferent as to who should see them or what they might be seen doing, while it was as easy to gaze into the apartments of the houses opposite and watch the inmates going about their intimate household duties. She noticed too that the people living in the apartments near hers spoke English. As a matter of fact many of the tenants in this house were British West Indians.

The room engaged, they started out on another important errand, and again Mackenzie was of great assistance. He took them to a furniture shop, where Susan selected a “set” [suite] of furniture, which was to be sent to her new address at once. The salesman, being a Chinaman, did not imagine that “at once” signified some time in the indefinite future, hence the furniture arrived at its destination soon after its purchasers did. It did not take long to arrange it as Susan directed; this done, the men went for the trunks which Susan and Jones had taken with them to the lodging near the swamps the night before. These trunks contained not only clothing but some domestic linen, or, to be accurate, some domestic calico, and while the men were away Susan bought a couple of small iron stoves, a few plates, and some other things which a good housekeeper must have. She learnt that the cooking and the washing must be done on the veranda or in the open courtyard below, which was always wet and could be stared into by all the people passing by. She decided for the veranda. In the courtyard, in addition to washtubs and cooking-stoves, were quite a number of babies ranging from six months to five years of age, and all stark naked, in accordance with the prevailing fashion of tropical Spanish America. To naked babies she was not accustomed. So she resolutely set her face against the courtyard.

She would not have the men go out for lunch that day. She provided it at home, and as she had a turn for cooking, it was a very good meal that she placed before them in about an hour’s time. She provided coffee also, with a view to preventing Samuel from indulging in whisky or beer; and as the men gulped down the hot, fragrant liquid and puffed at their cigars, a feeling of contentment stole over them and they gave vocal expression to their appreciation of Susan as a housewife.

She was satisfied. Her discontent of the night before had vanished. Possessed of a new “set of furniture,” which was better than the things she had been obliged to sell in Jamaica, settled in a busy part of the town and fairly far from the noisome swamps, with Mackenzie also as a good friend ready to aid them with his advice and to put himself to some trouble on their account, she felt that her fate was by no means an unpleasant one. “We not going to batter about from pillar to post any more,” she observed to Jones when lunch was over. “We are comfortable here.” And, to crown her happiness, when Jones and Mackenzie were preparing to go out that evening, they invited her to go with them.

They did not return home until ten o’clock that night; in the interval Susan had seen as much of Colon as she cared to see, and that was nearly all of it. They dined out. They walked about the streets, Mackenzie conducting the party; they hired a cab and drove along Front Street and through Christobal, and the glitter of glass and lights in the open bars, the crowds that gambled at cards and dice and dominoes in these places, the shops, which kept their doors open to a late hour, appealed to Susan, and even more to Jones, with a peculiar fascination.

Here what was done in public by people unashamed, could only take place behind closed doors in Jamaica. Here the people had money to spend, and spent it freely. Here there were contradictions and anomalies which were nevertheless enjoyable. At the corner of a street, in a chapel built entirely of any old bits of board, a self-ordained preacher from Jamaica held forth to a small congregation on the error of their ways, though his ways did not differ from theirs in any essential particular. Opposite to this building was a merry-go-round in full swing and abundantly patronized. On the other side of the street, on the second storey of a high tenement structure, a dance was in progress, the guests footing it to the sound given forth by an execrable band; at a little distance away a moving-picture palace invited with flaring posters the lovers of silent drama to come within and be stewed in a steam bath provided by corrugated iron and the climate of Colon.

From this spot a walk of two minutes brought them to Christobal, and there they could see dimly the huge concrete piers jutting out into the sea—the piers which grew day by day and which were designed to accommodate easily the largest vessels in the world. It was quiet here: listening, they could hear the cocoa-nut palms moving their long fronds if ever so slight a breath of wind stirred, and the long waves of the Caribbean dash and break eternally on the coral shores of Colon.

Soon they turned their backs on Christobal, and a leisurely stroll of ten or twelve minutes brought them nearly to the opposite end of the little island, now artificially connected with the mainland, on which Colon and Christobal were built. At this part of Colon there was a park, quite new—a park with paths and seats, little fountains, evergreen shrubs, flowering hibiscus, and banana trees. They sat here for a little while, chatting about Jamaica and the life they had lived there, and after that Mackenzie bade his new friends good night and they went home.

Susan was happy. This day had been so different from the previous one.


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