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CHAPTER VII WHAT HAPPENED AT CULEBRA
It was raining at Culebra—had been raining for days. For miles and miles the sky was overcast, hour after hour the rain came down, now swiftly and in showers, now in a light drizzle which gave to the surrounding country an aspect of greyness, a cheerless, depressing hue.

It was between eight and nine o’clock in the forenoon; her husband had gone to his work and Susan was busying herself with her household duties. She was pensive, moving about as one who had no energy; her mind was not set about what she was doing, her thoughts were far away.

She knew that Catherine must have told Jones on the previous night her answer to his letter: she was wondering what he had said, whether he had determined to go back to Jamaica without seeing her, whether all was over between them now. . . .

There was a knock at the front door: she went to answer it. She opened the door: on the veranda stood Samuel, the last person in the world she expected to see at Mackenzie’s house that day.

“You!” she exclaimed. “What y’u doing up here?”

She stood guarding the doorway, as if to prevent him from entering; she was trembling all over with fear, not of Jones, but lest her husband should unexpectedly return and find Samuel there.

“You not going to let me in?” asked Jones, with a note of pleading in his voice; “I have only come to have a talk with you.”

“You shouldn’t come,” she answered. “What a trial is this! I told Kate to tell you I couldn’t come to Colon now, an’ here you come to Culebra to make trouble. What’s the good of all this, Sam?”

She did not wait for him to answer.

“You must go right back,” she insisted, “for the neighbours goin’ to tell Mackenzie dat a strange man come here to-day, an’ if you stay an’ him find out it is you, he will believe what Tom write an’ tell him. You can’t remain here, Sam.”

Her words, her earnest manner, her evident determination not to let him enter, left Jones at a loss what to do. He had taken the early morning train to Culebra; he had left Colon for the purpose of speaking his mind to her: he wanted to relieve his feelings. While in the train he had kept his courage up to the sticking point; again and again he had rehearsed to himself his grievances; even when he left the train and was climbing the hill he felt that he would be able to go through with the scene which he had pictured. But when he neared the house which was pointed out to him as Susan’s, he had been conscious of some hesitation in his mind, of an inclination to pause and consider whether he was acting wisely. He had fought down that inclination; he was now standing face to face with Susan. But she, though frightened, was resolute, and he stood before her perplexed, uncertain what to do.

“You going to stay at the door all day?” he asked her.

“No, for I don’t expect you goin’ to remain here.”

“You not even going to ask me to take a seat?”

“What for?”

“I am tired. I didn’t sleep all last night; I walk from the train station to this house, and all you do is to insult me like a dog. I only came here to tell you good-bye. I am taking the steamer to Jamaica to-morrow.”

“To-morrow?”

“Yes. I don’t want to stop here any longer.”

Her eyelids fluttered; she gazed at him in blank silence; she felt that he had spoken the truth, had made up his mind to leave Panama. In a little while he would return to the station, in a few hours he would be on his way . . . home.

The patter of the rain on the roofs and ground played a heavy accompaniment to the beating of her heart. Through the thick atmosphere came steadily the booming sound of dynamite explosions in the Cut. Boom, boom, boom: the heavy noise assaulted the ear, but she herself was conscious only of a deadly stillness within her. Suddenly Jones put out his hand. “Good-bye,” he said.

For answer, she stepped backwards. “Come in and sit down a little, if you tired,” she said.

He entered, glanced carelessly around him, and sat down. She left the door open, threw open all the windows also, as if there were a dead body in the house. Anyone passing could see them, no one could imagine or say that she was entertaining Jones clandestinely. “Mackenzie shouldn’t come back before half-past twelve,” she remarked; “but if he come you must tell him that you come up here to tell him an’ me good-bye.”

She sat at some distance from him, and by one of the open windows.

“What you going to do in Jamaica?” she asked.

“I don’t know, an’ I don’t care. I should never have come to this place. In fact,” he added, breaking out a little, “I am goin’ to kill meself!”

“Stop talking stupidness, Sam,” she said quietly: “you know y’u not goin’ to do nothing of the sort. I suppose at first you thought you would make a quarrel wid me up here?”

He feebly protested that such a thought had never entered his mind, but knew that he did not convince her. He was aware now that a quarrel at Culebra would have been a hopelessly foolish thing.

Both of them fell into silence after this. There seemed nothing more to say. Both of them appeared to be listening to the rain, to that persistent booming of the explosions; both of them were wondering if this were really their last leave-taking.

One question formed itself again and again in Susan’s mind: “Would it not be better to sacrifice respectability, religion, and go with him?” Sitting face to face with him, knowing that to-morrow he would be on his way to Jamaica, the answer “Yes” was whispered to her from her heart. As if he knew what was passing in her mind, he asked her suddenly:

“And you won’t make up you’ mind to come with me, Sue?”

If “Yes” rose to her lips, she resolutely shut them. A few seconds passed before she replied.

“Something tell me, ‘Better not,’ Sam. But I am sorry.”

She covered her face with her hands.

“Kiss me an’ tell me good-bye, Sue.”

He had risen and was standing over her. She got up, glanced quickly outside: no one was passing. She kissed him.

He left the house, walking hurriedly away. She fell back into her chair, crying as she had never cried before.

Jones walked rapidly in the direction of the Culebra station. He knew that Susan cared for him still; he believed that if he waited and persisted he would be able to break down her resolution. But he might have long to wait, and he did not feel equal to that. His work at Christobal had become a dreary drudgery. It would be better to go back to Jamaica, and that he would do the next day.

He did not blame Susan now; he felt for her nothing but kindness and affection. It was Mackenzie he blamed; Mackenzie it was who had inveigled her away from him: Mackenzie was the cause of her unhappiness and his. But even while he thought this, he felt in his heart of hearts that he himself had been the first cause of Susan’s desertion of him. He had promised to marry her and had broken his word. He had made a fool of himself in Colon. He sought for excuses for his conduct; he found many; yet his self-accusation persisted: conscience was by no means dead in Samuel Josiah.

He reached the station; there he learnt that there would be no train leaving for the next couple of hours. This delay he had not foreseen: he wondered what he should do with himself in the meantime. He could not return to Susan’s house.

He lounged about the station for a few minutes, but his thoughts troubled him and inaction was irksome. He must do something, he would walk about a little: he turned his back to the station and took the road leading down into the Culebra Cut. He had never been inside the Cut before. Troubled in mind as he was, the scene there made demands on his attention. Soon he was looking about him with wondering eyes.

On either hand of him rose lofty walls of rock and earth, carved into wide terraces which formed the buttresses of the mighty Cut. He was walking along one of these terraces; on it and on all the others train lines were laid. The trains were passing up and down, powerful engines dragging twenty, thirty, forty dump-cars laden with the stones and dirt that had been dug out of this part of the Canal; and at the bottom of the ditch and along the sides of it steam shovels were at work.

He watched these shovels curiously. He saw long cranes attached to engines, and at the end of each crane an iron box with a movable lid and bottom. The crane swung round, was lowered, the iron box or mouth bit into a pile of earth and rock shattered by dynamite, gorged itself, swung round again until it hovered over a dump-car. Then the bottom of the box opened slowly and a mass of earth and stones was poured into the car. Again the shovel swung back, and again and again was this process repeated. He remembered that Mackenzie was engaged on one of those steam shovels, and thought that perhaps he was, without knowing it, watching Mackenzie’s shovel at work. Then he resumed his walk, thankful that he had worn his waterproof that day, for now black and heavy rain-clouds were brooding over the Cut.

He walked along rapidly, knowing that he had not much more time to spare. The farther on he went, the more intense became the activity of the works, the more impressive the scene around him. Thousands of men were earnestly at work; groups of West Indians were manipulating the air-drills which bored the holes for the dynamite charges, scores of steam shovels were toiling to remove the heaped-up debris, dozens of steam-engines were hurrying to and fro and sending forth shrill screams. From the escapes of the steam shovels came puffs of greyish smoke, from the funnels of the engines a thick black smoke was belched, from the air-drills little spurts of steam darted, and from all around came the heavy detonation of dynamite discharges, shaking the earth.

Penned in by the high walls on either side, the smoke drifted hither and thither, forming a gloomy pall. The cliffs of Culebra flung back the deep boom of the explosions, the hurrying trains seemed to threaten at every moment to come into violent collision. Jones saw West Indian labourers carelessly carrying boxes of dynamite on their heads and shoulders, and remembered that many a man had, through his carelessness, been shattered to pieces in an instant. He saw more than one of them trip and the boxes they carried almost hurled to the ground. The men laughed. Familiarity with danger had rendered them contemptuous of it; but Jones shuddered; he could not appreciate the indifference and recklessness of these workers.

Boom, boom, boom: that sound dominated every other. It was answered soon by a thunder-crash from above, and then the driving rainstorm burst over Culebra. The rain came roaring down, an opaque volume of rushing water; objects a yard or two away were completely blotted out of sight; the blackness of night was above. But still he heard the whistling scream of the trains, still the heavy detonations warned him that the dynamite was blasting the solid rock. Nothing could be allowed to stay this work; the men, clad in their waterproofs, toiled on; the deafening noise ceased never for a moment.

He was drenched in spite of his cloak. Yet, because of the awful heat, he was in a profuse perspiration. He began to think he had lost his train after all; he would have to wait until another one came in from the city of Panama. Happily the downpour was ceasing; it was too violent to last. He waited until it became a drizzle, cast a regretful glance before him, for he wished he had been able to go farther on, and was about to retrace his steps when a shout from some men in front of him caused him to look hurriedly opposite, towards where these men were pointing with wild gestures.

Then he saw a sight that almost paralysed his heart. The mountain-side immediately opposite to him was slipping, coming down with a rush, as though it had been struck by an invisible hand and was being hurled to the bottom of the chasm. Hundreds of tons of loosened rock and earth were crashing down-wards, and the horror-stricken men who saw what was happening were shouting, screaming, gesticulating, for well they knew the fate of any who should be struck unawares by the swift-descending mass. Jones started to run, then stopped, apprehensive of what might happen next; he could not be certain that the wall which towered above him, or even the terrace on which he stood, might not also suddenly slip away. His mind was dazed; he felt that he had been very near to death, and, for all he knew, might be near to it still.

He looked about him; hundreds of men were running towards the huge pile of debris below. He noticed that the train lines down there had been torn away and twisted as if they were merely wire; some machinery had been dashed to pieces. Was anyone killed? he wondered.

People were clambering down the sides of the terraces; he ran towards them, joined them, and found that he could descend without great difficulty. All the men seemed to know in what direction they should go; he heard them saying to one another that the rock-fall had not been unexpected, that the engineers had noticed cracks some days before, which had led them to believe that once again Culebra would put their patience to the test. He gathered that on this particular section much work was not being done; perhaps, then, no one had lost his life. But the men were not certain; the slide was a bigger one than ordinary. Thus talking in snatches and exclamations, slipping, climbing, running, they reached the bottom of the Cut.

Here a crowd was already collected, a crowd working with might and main, digging away at something as if their lives depended upon it. Jones pushed his way to the front; he saw that the diggers were at work upon the earth and shattered rock that covered a steam shovel partly. This shovel had been in operation when the slide occurred; had it been a few yards farther back it must have entirely escaped. As it was, the men who manned it had had no warning, had not been able to leap clear of the machine and get away in time. It was doubtful if they were yet alive; but nothing was being left undone to save them, if they could be saved.

“Who are they?” Jones heard one American in the crowd ask another. “Any white men?”

“Two, and a coloured man,” was the answer: “poor fellows.”

The news spread; dark faces turned ashen with horror. A thousand people waited to hear if there was any hope—or none.

“What’s their name?” Jones kept on asking of persons who paid no attention to him. At last one of them who worked in this part of the Cut, hearing the question, replied, “The white men name Jackson an’ Campbell; the black man is Mackenzie.”

Jones went suddenly cold. “Mackenzie?” he repeated. “Mackenzie being suffocated to death?” He fought his way to where the men were digging. The thought uppermost in his mind was that his old friend was dying, dying horribly. “Good God!” he exclaimed, and the next instant, seizing a shovel from the heaps which had been hurriedly brought up, he was digging amongst the labourers like a man gone wild.

Not as his rival, not as the husband of Susan, did he think of Mackenzie now. For those few moments of his life Jones was utterly unselfish.

Somebody caught him by the shoulder and pushed him back; his assistance was not needed.

“Careful now,” said a commanding voice; “bring ’em out carefully.”

“Here’s one,” cried a man, an American like the first.

“Back there, back!” came a peremptory order. Four doctors were already on the spot; the crowd was being forced back; the same remarkable organization that made the building of the great Canal a matter of routine and order was in evidence at this tragedy too. It took less than a minute for the doctors to pronounce their verdict. The men had been killed instantly, could not have realized what was happening.

The bodies were placed upon stretchers, and the stretchers were hoisted into a railway car. The people began to return to their temporarily interrupted work. Tragedies were not rare at Culebra. One cannot build a great canal without loss of life.

Wet, muddied, horror-stricken still, Jones slowly followed the returning labourers, intending to get out of the Cut as quickly as possible. He realized that the man who had stood between him and Susan had been removed; but the manner of Mackenzie’s removal terrified him. Had Mackenzie sickened and died, it is possible that Jones would have seen the hand of Providence in the circumstance. But this sudden death—a death, too, which might so easily have overtaken himself had he been on the opposite side of the chasm—seemed to him to be somewhat devilish; he was afraid. He vehemently told himself that he had never wished Mackenzie dead, though he knew he had often done so; then he said to himself that he had never meant his wish. Whether he had meant it or not, it was realized. He was startled by the fact. This was no good thing: why should Mackenzie have died like that, just then? He forgot the two white men entirely.

He got out of the Cut at last, wondering if he should go and tell Susan the terrible news. He decided that he would not: she would probably have heard it already, and he was not exactly the one to inform her how Mackenzie had come to his end. But there was something he could do. He hurried to the telegraph station and dispatched a message to Susan’s people in Colon, telling them what had happened and advising them to come over to Culebra without delay. After that he went to the coloured section of the town; he saw many people in and about Mackenzie’s house. So Susan knew. He went back to the railway station to await the arrival of Susan’s relatives.

He sat down on the edge of the platform, thinking of all that had happened that day. If Susan had left the house with him and they had afterwards heard of this death! What a narrow escape it had been! And then with his mind’s eye he saw Mackenzie as Mackenzie had greeted him on the day of his arrival in Colon, a cordial, helpful friend. He saw him as a visitor, always contented and happy in the house. He saw him as a corpse on the stretcher, suddenly struck dead. “Poor Mac,” he muttered again and again, “poor Mac; poor fellow.” And he cried like a child in contrition and sorrow.


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