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CHAPTER IV THE NIGHT OF THE FIRE

“Mackenzie,” said Susan one evening, some four days after she had been to Colon, “you ever see Jones?”

“No,” he replied, “I don’t think him ever come this way. An’ I never hear anything of him; perhaps he gone back home.”

“I don’t think so,” Susan said, “for Kate tell me when I was in Colon this week that Jones go to see them sometimes. I was thinking that maybe him will get married himself.”

“Cho!” laughed Mackenzie, “Jones is never goin’ to do anything. Some girl may marry him if she really want to get married, and can take him to a church, but it will be she who will do it. You take my word for it, some day Jones is going to go back to Jamaica widout a cent in his pocket. He will have nothing to show for all the time him spend here.”

“I think so meself,” agreed Susan; “he don’t steady at all like you, Mac.”

This direct compliment, at the expense of Jones too, pleased Mackenzie not the less because he felt it was deserved. He smiled complacently.

“I always thought from the first time I see you in Colon, Sue,” he said, “that you was too good for a fellow like Jones. He has his good points, for he can work hard an’ he know his work. But him like to show off too much, an’ he never know his own mind.”

“You think I should speak to him if I ever meet him? You see, he may go to see me family when I am there, an’ I wouldn’t like to speak to him if you didn’t like it.”

“Why, of course you can speak to him; I don’t see why you shouldn’t. He don’t do you nothing, an’ I don’t see why he should vex because you leave him to get married. If I see him meself I will speak to him: an’ if him don’t choose to answer it will be all the same to me.”

“You right, Mac. If you hold out the hand of friendship an’ Jones don’t choose to take it, that’s ‘up to him’ as the American people here say. An’ I will follow your advice and speak to him if I ever see him, for I don’t bear anybody malice.”

“Malice is foolishness,” said Mackenzie emphatically. “If I was to meet Jones up here I would invite him to come an’ spend a evening in me house. I don’t know if him would come, but that would show him that I have no bad feelings towards him.”

She said nothing to her husband of her having already met Samuel Josiah. But now she felt that she could with a clear conscience be polite to Jones when next she should see him; and perhaps, after that meeting, she might tell Mackenzie of it . . . that would be wise. She was going to see her people again, but she must not seem in any hurry to do so; she must force herself to wait. She allowed two weeks to elapse before she went, taking care to let Catherine know by letter beforehand the day on which to expect her.

She arrived in Colon in the afternoon, and that evening Jones came round to the house. He expected to meet her.

For a little while they discussed indifferent topics; then suddenly Susan gave a sharp turn to the conversation and surprised everybody by saying:

“I hear that I have to congratulate you, Mr. Jones.”

“Me? What for?” he asked.

“I hear you goin’ to get married.”

“You don’t say!” exclaimed Mr. Proudleigh, immediately becoming interested. Jones had been coming so often to see them, and had been so obliging in the matter of the loans, that the old gentleman had begun to think that a match might be arranged between the young man and Catherine.

“I never hear of it before,” said Jones, “but people always know a man’s business better than he know it himself.” (Mr. Proudleigh’s face lighted up with pleasure.) “I have nothing more to do with any woman, Mrs. Mackenzie, an’ don’t intend to.” (Here Mr. Proudleigh’s hopes fell to zero—a common enough occurrence.) “Women do me enough already in this world. I have been fooled once, but that was not my fault. If I allow anybody to fool me again, however, I would be more than stupid.”

Susan’s question had been deliberately put for the purpose of finding out if Samuel’s affections were still unengaged. She was therefore delighted with his reply. But she answered to the point. “I didn’t know you ever was married before, Mr. Jones, so you couldn’t have been fooled.”

“P’rhaps it is a very good thing him was never married,” observed Miss Proudleigh caustically, leaving her meaning to be understood by Susan.

“Perhaps so,” replied Susan promptly, “for if Mr. Jones was married him might have all his wife’s old relations wanting to live on him.”

“It’s not a matter of relations,” said Jones, “for when I put me hand into me pocket, I can always find money there to help anybody. But females are not to be trusted; and as I don’t take away anybody’s wife, I wouldn’t like anybody to take away mine.”

“I agree wid you, Mister Jones,” said Mr. Proudleigh; “but you don’t have no occasion to worry you’self, for as you not married, nobody can teck away you’ wife.” He laughed as he ceased, being proud of his logic.

“Well, marriage is not everything,” said Susan; “but as I hear that Mr. Jones was goin’ to get married—I forget who tell me—I thought I would mention it so as to congratulate him. But since it isn’t true, I congratulate him all de same.”

“I thank you kindly,” said Jones with a sweeping bow, “and without indulging in any process of vituperation, I venture to submit that some people would have a better life with Samuel Josiah Jones than with other men I could mention. Some married people have it dull, you know. Now I am a sport, an’ anybody who is along with me must enjoy themself.”

Susan immediately credited her aunt with having been talking about her to Jones. Her suspicions were just. Yet Jones had said enough to indicate that he was still regretting her desertion of him, and this established a sympathetic understanding between them: they were both partners in misfortune.

“What that word, ‘vituperation,’ mean, Mister Jones?” inquired Mr. Proudleigh, who was interested in polysyllables but sometimes found that Jones’s terms left him bewildered in a maze of hopeless conjecture.

“It means,” said Jones, beginning an explanation which might have left the old man no wiser than before, when a shout in the street attracted their attention, and they heard a babble of voices and the sound of hurrying feet.

“Fire!” cried Mr. Proudleigh, moving quickly towards the veranda. “What a place Colon is for fire! Almost every week dere is one.”

“They say the American doctors burn down the houses when they can’t cure the fever any other way,” said Jones, hurriedly following Mr. Proudleigh to the veranda.

“The people burn it down themself when them want to rob,” was Miss Proudleigh’s hypothesis, which probably did account for many of the fires which afflicted Colon.

From the veranda they could see a red glare against the north-western sky, and a great volume of smoke surging upwards. The glare grew brighter every moment; denser became the smoke.

“It’s a big fire!” cried Susan excitedly, “an’ nearly all the house in Colon is of wood. It may burn down de whole town!”

“I gwine to see it!” Mr. Proudleigh exclaimed. “I never miss a fire yet.” He hurried into the room for his hat, spurred to unusual activity by the prospect of enjoying one of his favourite amusements.

“But suppose it come this way, pupa?” cried Catherine in a frightened tone of voice. “What about we clothes and other things?”

But Mr. Proudleigh was already half-way down the stairs, and calling out loudly to ask if they were not going with him. Miss Proudleigh refused to move, not being willing to leave her room to the mercy of wandering thieves. Catherine, after a moment’s hesitation, ran after her father. Jones and Susan went out together.

The street below was crowded. Half the people in Colon were running towards the scene of the conflagration, shouting “Fire!” with all the power of their lungs. Cabs tore through the narrow thoroughfare, mounted men appeared from nowhere and began to urge their horses through the hurrying throng with a fine disregard of other people’s safety. The excitement was contagious; it infected Susan and Jones, who, hand in hand, began to run also, immediately losing sight of Catherine and Mr. Proudleigh and thinking only of themselves. Soon they came to the spot where a huge crowd was collected near a block of wooden buildings, some of which were now blazing furiously. Fortunately there was no wind, so the sparks were not carried to any considerable distance. But they rose to a tremendous height in the heated air, and at that moment thousands of anxious people were wondering whether a single house would be left standing in Colon when morning dawned.

The fire brigades were on the spot, the town brigade as well as that from Christobal. The men worked like demons. Long silver streams poured upon the blazing buildings; uniformed men in shining helmets swarmed up the sides of the doomed structures, splintering and smashing the woodwork with their axes, giving fierce battle to the yellow monster which leaped from roof to roof, roaring dully as if glorying in destruction. The Panamanian police were everywhere, the little fellows running about and clubbing out of the way whoever ventured too near the burning houses. Soon it was seen that the flames were threatening to leap across a narrow street, the houses in which were already warping and blistering under the terrible heat. If those houses should once ignite, it would be with the greatest difficulty that they could be saved.

A sudden scattering of the crowd indicated that the police were impressing men to help them fight the fire. They seized every able-bodied man they could lay their hands upon, tolerating no show of resistance; people on the outskirts of the crowd, knowing that an unpleasant time would be in store for them if once they were impressed, were hastily making off, and Jones, who was among them, thought it eminently wise to follow their example as quickly as possible. Pulling Susan by the hand, he hurried away. When he thought that he had put sufficient ground between himself and the police he halted. From where they now stood they could still see the flames fighting their way upwards, and the huge masses of heavy black smoke spreading like a pall over the town.

“I hope them won’t hold pupa,” panted Susan, staring with wide-open eyes at the curling smoke and lurid sky.

“They wouldn’t bother with him,” Jones assured her; “he is too feeble; in fact, he shouldn’t be in that crowd at all. It is the strong men they looking for to-night. They will try to hold people like me an’ Mackenzie.”

Mackenzie’s name slipped out almost without Jones knowing that he had pronounced it. It showed that Mackenzie occupied a large portion of his thoughts in these days. The mention of the name also led to a question which seemed strangely out of place at a time when Colon appeared to be threatened with wholesale destruction.

“You an’ you’ husband ever talk about me?” he asked Susan.

She was surprised at this question, so out of keeping it was with her thoughts just then. Still staring towards the fire, she said, “Why you ask that now?”

“Because I would like to know what you say about me, an’ this is the only time I can ask you. I suppose Mackenzie laugh at me an’ think I am a fool to let him take you away from me so easy?”

“Why you always like to talk disagreeable things, Sam?” she answered, unconsciously dropping back into her old familiar way of addressing him. There was no pretence now; there was a touch of regret in her voice as she went on:

“Mackenzie is quite up at Culebra, an’ you is down here. I going back to-morrow. What’s de good of talkin’ about him?”

“But can you tell me now that you don’t sorry you leave me, Sue; that you are as happy as you used to be? I don’t make any pretence like you. I miss you, an’ I tell you so plain.”

“It was your fault, Sam. Before I went away I ask you if you was going to keep you’ promise to marry me, an’ you say I was talking foolishness. I knew Mackenzie was going to act differently, and, after all, him do for me what you would never do.”

“That is the way you put it. But you didn’t tell me Mackenzie offered to marry you. You stole away from me like a thief in the night. If you had told me you were going, and why you were going, I wouldn’t have made you go, an’ we would have been married to-day. But you didn’t give me a chance to know. Why? I could have done you nothing if you had told me.”

There was so much in what he said, that for the space of a few seconds Susan remained silent. Then she answered.

“You talk like that now, Sam, but you would have talked different if I had told you. I was afraid.”

“Afraid,” he repeated bitterly, “though I never lift me hand to you in me life! An’ suppose it had come to a big quarrel or a fight. You was living in the same house with a lot of people: what could I do you? An’ if I did make a fight, the wrong would have been on my side, an’ you could have left me with a clear conscience. How is it now? You mean to tell me that every day of you’ natural life you going to be content with the same sort of life you living now? I know all about it. You can’t prevent you’ people from talking. Besides, I know something about Culebra; and I know Mackenzie. An’ if it is bad now, what is it goin’ to be later on? You are going to be miserable, you going to fret, you going to wish you were dead; an’ so, for all your name is Mrs. Mackenzie, an’ you have a ring on you’ finger, and all the comforts you want, I don’t see that you are as well off as before you got married. So what is the good of it?”

Out there, in the streets of Colon, in the town where, as she now so keenly remembered, she had had so many hours of happiness, Susan felt the full force of Samuel’s words. Both of them had forgotten the fire. Their own affairs were of supremest importance in all the world.

“It is no use talkin’ now,” she said dismally. “What is done can’t be undone.”

“That is true. You make your own bed an’ must lie on it.”

“We live an’ learn,” said Susan. “You can’t know if you don’t try.”

“What’s the sense of tryin’ once if you can never try again?”

She said nothing, and he continued, as if talking to himself:

“You can’t marry again, once you’re married; that’s the hard part of it. You leave me, but you can’t leave Mackenzie. . . . You can’t. . . . But, Sue, you can! Let us go away from here to Jamaica!”

No such proposition had definitely formed itself in his mind when he first began to speak. The suddenness of it was a revelation to himself. Yet the idea must have been lurking somewhere at the back of his mind, for he had never entirely given up Susan. Now too he went on as though the whole course of their future conduct had been carefully thought out by him.

“We can go to Jamaica, Sue, an’ we’ll be all right there. I will arrange all about the passage; you can come down here from Culebra the night before the ship sail, and we can leave in the morning. You needn’t say a word to anybody, not even your own people; you can write them when you are in Jamaica. When we get there, Mackenzie can only divorce you, for he can’t do you anything in Jamaica. But even if he divorce you, it won’t matter, for I will marry you then. Mackenzie take you away from me, so it is only fair if I take you away from him. What you say?”

“No, Sam! This is different. When I leave you I wasn’t married; I was me own woman; now I am not. It would be a disgrace for me to go away wid you an’ leave me lawful husband. Besides, it would be a sin. Don’t you know that if a married woman ’ave anything to do with another man it is seven years’ trouble for both of them?”

It came into Jones’s mind at that moment that, if such were the case, there must be large numbers of persons in Central America and the West Indies enduring long seven-year periods of tribulation just then; but he only said, “That’s all foolishness, Sue.”

“It is not. Marriage is a different thing from every other thing; that is what I learn, and that is what nobody can take out of me head. An’ suppose Mackenzie was to divorce me. You think I would like to have me name disgrace like that?”

“Then what we going to do?”

For answer, Susan began to walk slowly in the direction of her people’s house. There were many persons in the streets now. The fire was burning still, but had been mastered; the fear that it might consume the whole town had passed away. People were beginning to return to their homes, all talking about the danger which they had escaped. The street in which they were was filled with the murmur of excited voices.

They walked on, Jones at her side. “Pupa must be gone home,” she remarked. “We better go back too.”

As she spoke she saw a man who was passing in the opposite direction turn and look at her and her companion. She glanced over her shoulder to look at him, Jones also turning to stare. The man had stopped and was staring.

They both recognized who it was, and Susan nodded her head. The man returned the bow, but Jones looked at him as if he were a post. “That is the jackass,” he said, “who cause all this trouble;” and he spoke loudly enough for Tom Wooley to hear.

They continued on their way, arriving at the house in a few minutes. There they found Mr. Proudleigh relating his wonderful experiences at the scene of the fire. He and Catherine had been separated in the crowd, and he related how the police had tried to induce him to assist in extinguishing the fire, and with what arguments he had effectually prevented them from laying sacrilegious hands upon his venerable person. A story which showed that the old man had in him the makings of an ingenious newspaper reporter, and which was listened to by his sister with every manifestation of profound disbelief.



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