THE NIGHT OF THE FIRE

Susan was no longer annoyed with her people for their unexpected
appearance. Now that it had been decided that they were to live by
themselves and do something to earn their living, she felt glad that
they had come to Panama. They would not be very far from her; she could
go to see them fairly often; the old associations, severed when she left
Jamaica, were renewed once more. With her elbows on the table and her
entwined fingers supporting her chin, she watched them eat with a
pleasant glow of hospitality. “Tell me all about home,” she said. “You
ever see Maria?”

“No,” said Catherine; “but I meet Hezekiah one day, an’ him tell me that
Maria hear that you married: somebody write from Colon to tell her. She
will never get a man to put a ring on _her_ finger. You ever see Tom an’
Jones since you married, Sue?”

“No; I don’t think them ever come up this way; an’ since I married,
going eight weeks now, I never leave Culebra once.”

“Jones never write you?” asked her aunt.

“No! Him couldn’t do that. I have nothing more to do wid him.”

“I never did like dat young man,” said Mr. Proudleigh with grave
deliberation. “He talk too much, an’ him always using big words dat I
couldn’t understand. I never thoughted that you would be happy with him,
Sue.”

“Did Jones ever do you anything, pupa?” asked Susan sharply.

“Me? No. Him couldn’t do me anyt’ing. I wouldn’t make him take a liberty
wid me!”

“An’ when you used to borrow a shillin’ from him every now an’ then,
behind my back, though you know you couldn’t pay him back, he ever
refused you?”

This little matter of the loans Mr. Proudleigh had hitherto regarded as
an entirely private business arrangement between Samuel Josiah and
himself; indeed, he had always prefaced his request for a loan with a
speech on the wisdom of not letting one’s left hand know what one’s
right hand did. He had never failed to intimate clearly that Susan was
one of those symbolical left hands that had always better be kept in
ignorance of all important financial transactions between man and man.
But now that, to his intense surprise, Susan mentioned his past
obligations to Jones, he asserted with assurance, “I goin’ to pay him
back every farden. I will write an’ send de money.” An excellent
resolution, though he did not trouble to mention when he would write or
where the money was to come from.

“Well, seeing that Jones was kind to you in Jamaica, I don’t see why y’u
should say you don’t like him,” Susan continued. “We didn’t get on too
well sometimes in Colon, for him was a little wild an’ he got into bad
company. That is why I leave him an’ married Mackenzie. But I don’t ’ave
anything to say against him, for him didn’t stint me in anything, an’
him never ill-treat me.”

“I always liked Mr. Jones, though I never borrow any money from him,”
said Miss Proudleigh untruthfully, pleased at being able to get even
with her brother for his recent attempt to establish her age at fifty.
“He was always polite an’ gentlemanly.”

Mr. Proudleigh had in the meantime filled his mouth to its utmost
capacity, with a view of showing that he could not without grave
inconvenience take any further part in a conversation which was becoming
unpleasantly personal. Catherine had finished eating. Seeing this, Susan
invited her into the kitchen, on the excuse that she wished to prepare
something for Mackenzie.

“You have it dull, Sue?” asked Catherine, as soon as the two found
themselves alone.

“Lord, yes! Every day it is one thing over an’ over. I know some of de
people here, but you can’t make a dance when you like, or ’ave much
merriment.”

“But you have you’ husband.”

Susan twisted her mouth slightly, a facial contortion which Catherine
interpreted as meaning that Mackenzie’s existence did not contribute
materially to making life bright at Culebra.

“Mac is all right enough,” Susan explained, “but him is very quiet an’
serious.”

After a moment’s hesitation, she added:

“Jones was livelier.”

“Then why you leave Jones?”

Susan let the question pass.

“Marriage is dull,” she said: “you are not you’ own mistress. It is true
you ’ave a honourable position, but what is the good of that if it don’t
make you any happier?”

With unconscious inconsistency she continued. “Sam promised to marry me
when we was at sea, but he wouldn’t do it afterwards. It would have been
better for him if he did keep his word.”

Catherine was looking at her narrowly as she spoke. She saw quite
clearly that Susan was not satisfied with her present situation. And yet
she was in a position that hundreds would have envied.

“Perhaps if you did wait, Jones would have married you,” Catherine
suggested.

“I don’t think so. Him was wild an’ foolish, an’ thought that I care for
him so much that I wouldn’t leave him. If he was different I would be
with him now, even if him didn’t married me.”

Catherine looked wise. “I always say it is better not to married too
quick,” she observed; “for you may find you make a mistake, an’ then you
can’t do nothing.”

But here Susan thought that perhaps she had said too much, even to her
sister. So she remarked, with emphasis, that, after all, she was very
comfortable, and that Mackenzie was kind to her and never quarrelled
with her. “I don’t ’ave a word to say against him,” she asserted
truthfully.

Then she and Catherine rejoined the others, for she was now expecting
her husband at any moment.

He came in presently, glanced inquiringly at Susan, who was about to say
who the strangers were, when Mr. Proudleigh, who for a week had been
rehearsing a little speech he had prepared to greet Mackenzie with,
stood up in haste and unceremoniously interrupted his daughter. The old
man had been an Odd Fellow in his younger days, and had frequently
figured as “chaplain” in the lodge. He now chose to regard Mackenzie as
an embodied Odd Fellows Society, and forthwith addressed him as such:

“My noble king! When first I hear that you married Miss Susan, who is
the best daurter I have, an’ when I hear about you from all de people
who come back to Jamaica from here—for I can tell you you are well
beknown—I say to meself: I will arise an’ never be happy till I see me
son-in-law. An’ here I come, though sea-sickness nearly kill me, to
welcome you into de fambily; an’ I can tell you at once that I are going
to do everything to make you comfortable. We don’t acquainted well yet,
but when we are acquaint——”

What would happen when the further acquaintanceship hinted at by Mr.
Proudleigh should have developed, will never be known. For just then
Mackenzie quietly put a stop to his oratory by remarking:

“So you are Sue’s father? I am glad to see you, sir,” and then shook
hands with him.

He greeted Miss Proudleigh and Catherine with similar cordiality,
assuring them that he was happy to see them. Then they all sat down.

“Come on a trip, or to do business?” he inquired of Miss Proudleigh, who
somehow he took to be the leader of the party.

“Things being bad in Jamaica,” that lady replied, “I took a thought an’
came with me brother an’ niece to see if I could get a little work in
Colon. I am a hard-working woman, an’ so long as I can make an honest
living, I are satisfied.”

“Quite right,” said Mackenzie; “nothing like independence, ma’am. You
goin’ to stop too, sir?” he asked Mr. Proudleigh.

“Well, yes,” said his father-in-law; “I thinks I will. I like up here
well; it’s a nice climate.”

“Well, you can stop here a few days; glad if y’u would,” said Mackenzie
hospitably, but this limited invitation finally put an end to Mr.
Proudleigh’s lingering hope of being invited to stay for good. “I hope
Sue been treating you good?” Mackenzie went on, “and that we have
something nice fo’ supper. Sue, we must get some beer an’ spend a nice
evening. It’s not all times we have friends from home.”

He asked to be excused while he went out to get the beer. Both Catherine
and Miss Proudleigh concluded that he was a kind man, easily satisfied,
and generous in a thoughtful, cautious sort of way. But Mr. Proudleigh
felt that Mackenzie’s invitation to him implied a narrow and
unappreciative spirit. Mr. Proudleigh already voted Mackenzie a failure
as a son-in-law.

That night they sat up until late discussing the condition of Jamaica.
From Mr. Proudleigh’s remarks, a stranger would have gathered that a
perfectly peaceful island was just then on the eve of revolution. He did
most of the talking, Mackenzie agreeing with what he said with all the
politeness of a host.

For four days did the visitors remain at Culebra. Susan tried to prevail
upon Catherine to stay with her for good, but that her sister would not
do; she was bored at Culebra. She noticed that Susan and Mackenzie
seemed to get on very well with one another, and that Mackenzie was
apparently quite satisfied with his marriage. But she was convinced that
Susan was not. “She don’t love him,” thought Catherine; “she don’t
happy. Better she didn’t married.”

But though she felt sorry for Susan, she would not share her loneliness.
She went with her father and her aunt to Colon.

It had been arranged that Susan should go to see her people as soon as
they had settled down in Colon: two weeks later she set out on the
journey to the little town she knew so well and missed so much. She
started in the forenoon, her plan being to spend the night in Colon and
return to Culebra the next day. In less than two hours she arrived, and,
taking a cab, drove to the house where her relatives now lived, they
having written to give her the address.

She was effusively welcomed by them. They had two small apartments in
one of the numerous tenement buildings of Colon. Miss Proudleigh,
although preferring dressmaking as a more genteel occupation, had become
a private laundress, as more money could be made that way. She had hired
a girl to help her; particularly, to go for and to take home the
clothes, for that neither she nor Catherine would consent to do.
Catherine assisted with the ironing. They were pleased to find that they
earned four or five times as much at this work as they would have done
in Jamaica. This almost compensated for the menial character of the
work. Mr. Proudleigh discovered elements of dignity in it. His only
contribution was gratuitous advice.

Catherine had news for Susan.

“Guess who I meet in Colon, Sue?” was her first remark, after Susan had
taken off her hat.

“Jones!” said Susan instantly.

“He an’ Tom. Them tell me all about the row, an’ Jones come here
sometimes during the day an’ in the evening. Him may come here to-day,”
she concluded, with a glance at her sister to see how she took the news.

Susan felt her heart leap as Catherine mentioned the possibility of
Jones’s calling at the house while she was there. But she affected
indifference.

“I don’t want to see him,” she said; “but it won’t matter.”

“Of course not,” observed her aunt, “for you are a lawfully married
woman now.”

“An’ nobody can take dat from you,” Mr. Proudleigh insisted, as though
some attempt to rob Susan of her married state was not at all unlikely.

“Nobody need try,” laughed Susan, pluming herself upon being Mrs.
Mackenzie; “I have me marriage certificate.”

“That is a very good thing to have,” Mr. Proudleigh agreed. “But y’u
needn’t fret that Jones won’t treat you respectful in dis house: he have
to! But I must tell you, Sue, that him is a very decent young man. He
confine to me all his troubles; an’ I must really tell you that I thinks
y’u treat him hard, for he is a noble young man.”

From these remarks Susan gathered that Jones was once more advancing to
her father small loans, to be repaid at a hypothetical future date. The
old financial relations had been re-established between the two men. But
she was not displeased to hear her father speak highly of Samuel. She
did not even resent the old man’s mild reproach.

When twelve o’clock came, she found herself anxiously wondering whether
Jones would call that day. From twelve to two o’clock he would not be
working; he would have ample time for a visit. Her aunt and Catherine
were ironing on that part of the veranda upon which their rooms opened.
She sat on the veranda talking to them, and every now and then she would
glance down into the street to see if anyone she knew was passing. She
saw some acquaintances, but always with a feeling of disappointment; as
two o’clock drew near she grew silent, a change which Catherine was not
slow to notice. When the hour struck and she had to recognize that there
was no possibility of Samuel’s coming that afternoon, she made no effort
to conceal from herself that she was bitterly disappointed: in her
inmost heart, also, she confessed to herself that during all the journey
from Culebra to Colon her great hope had been that she should see him,
meet him. For what? She had her reason ready. She told herself that she
wanted to know how he had taken her sudden departure, how he had fared
in the intervening ten weeks, how he would greet her, and whether he had
been captured by some other woman. When she reflected on the possibility
of his having been captured—just as though his personal responsibility
in that matter must be almost nil—she became fiercely antagonistic
towards the unknown woman. She resented her existence, hated her
bitterly.

During the rest of the afternoon she was rather moody; but when six
o’clock came she grew cheerful and talkative once more. An hour passed,
and then Catherine suggested that they should go for a walk about the
town. She agreed.

As they went along, Susan peeped into all the cafés that they passed.
She well knew the old favourite haunt of Samuel, and she led her sister
past it; but, though the doors were wide open as usual, she saw no sign
of Samuel. They called on one or two of Susan’s friends, and to these
the story of her marriage was related; her hearers had no doubt whatever
that she had acted wisely in leaving Jones; there was but one opinion on
her excellent good fortune. The congratulations she received heartened
her greatly; it was much to be a married woman; now she knew she had
done a sensible and proper thing. It was half-past nine when she and
Catherine went back to the house.

“A stranger is upstairs,” said Catherine, as they ascended the steps;
“that is not papee’s voice.”

Susan paused for a moment, her heart beating violently. “It is Jones,”
she whispered.

Catherine listened. “Yes,” she said; “him must have been here a long
time, for it is late already. Y’u not coming up?” she asked, for Susan
was standing still.

Slowly Susan followed her sister. The latter entered the room first.
Susan stepped in after her with a well-assumed air of indifference.

Some one rose. She heard his voice addressing her.

“Good evening, Mrs. Mackenzie. I hope I see you well? Your husband’s
health is propitious, I presume?”

She was equal to the occasion. “Good evening, Mr. Jones. Yes, thank y’u,
Mr. Mackenzie is quite well. He would ’ave sent you his compliments if
he did know I would meet you.”

She sat down. Their eyes met.

“That don’t matter,” said Jones, most loftily. “Compliments are only
words, an’ nobody don’t mean them. I am not sending anybody any
compliments. I have no friends, Mrs. Mackenzie, an’ I compliment nobody.
A man don’t know who to trust in this world.”

“Quite true, Mr. Jones, quite true,” observed Miss Proudleigh, who had
never forgotten Susan’s reception of her at Culebra. “There is but one
Friend who we can trust, an’ to Him we can take all our troubles. When
man desert us an’ play us false, we can take them to the Lord in
pr’yer.” In this way the good lady endeavoured to convey to Jones her
opinion of Susan’s general behaviour.

Jones enjoyed Miss Proudleigh’s sympathy. He felt that he was amongst
friends. He had helped them with his advice since they had been in
Colon, and Mr. Proudleigh had confessed to him that in Mr. Proudleigh’s
opinion Mackenzie was not fit to unloose the latchet of Samuel Josiah’s
shoe. At that moment Susan was at a disadvantage.

He was looking at her narrowly. Her sojourn at Culebra had improved her:
he did not think he had ever seen her look so well before. She was
singularly attractive. Dressed in cool white, she faced him
self-possessed, while on the third finger of her left hand gleamed a
broad band of gold, the symbol of her new condition. Ever and again his
eyes lingered on that ring. He hated it. But he determined to show he
was indifferent, as indifferent as she appeared to be; in his most
bombastic manner he resumed the conversation.

“I am thinkin’ of returning to me native land. The temperature of Panama
is deleterious to my constitution, an’ they have no decent
administration in the country. Some people, of course, are contented
with it. If you kick some people it will please them. But Samuel Josiah
Jones is of a different characteristic; besides, I am one of those men
who can make a living in me own country, an’ I didn’t come here to pass
all me life digging dirt for American people.”

“I don’t suppose anybody else come here fo’ good, either, Mr. Jones,”
replied Susan sharply, feeling it incumbent upon her to defend her
absent husband against all covert attacks. “I expect meself to go home
before long.”

“Is Mac gwine to Jamaica, Sue?” asked her father quickly. “For, ef so, I
wouldn’t mind takin’ a trip meself, an’ I could come back wid you.”

“I don’t know what Mackenzie is goin’ to do, papee,” answered Susan
severely. “But perhaps, as you an’ Mr. Jones is so friendly, you can go
wid him.”

“Oh, that’s all right!” exclaimed Jones. “I can take the old man. I have
the cash, an’ no one ever say yet that Samuel Josiah was mean. When I am
goin’, old massa, you can come along.”

“Thank y’u, me son!” Mr. Proudleigh burst out.

“You is the sort of young man I did want for me son-in-law.”

He had no sooner spoken the words than he regretted them. They expressed
his true sentiments, but how would Susan take them? Catherine laughed.

“Wishes don’t alter facts,” said Miss Proudleigh sourly, “though some
people, in spite of all they may pretends, would be glad if facts could
be altered.”

Susan understood this remark and hated her aunt very thoroughly at that
moment. “I suppose you been wishin’ for a lot of things you never
get—eh, Aunt Deborah?” she said. “You must ’ave wished to get married
for a long time before you got old, but I hear you never even had an
intended.”

“What!” cried Mr. Proudleigh, before his sister could hurl the full
force of her scorn at the offending Susan, “my dear daurter, you don’t
know you’ aunt. You grow up an’ find ’er in religion, but she was a
little devil when she was young. I remember one night me father
half-murder her because she used to stay out late, an’ a young man beat
her one day because she was carryin’ on wid another young man, while she
was engage to de first one. But when she come near forty, of cou’se, an’
she see she was getting old, she teck to religion an’ becomes an example
to you young people.”

“You are an infernal liar!” cried Miss Proudleigh fiercely, roused now
to bitterest anger by this gratuitous detailing of her early history,
and entirely forgetful of the virtue of Christian forbearance and godly
conversation in her desire to maintain her claim to having always led a
pure and spotless life. “Since you come to Colon I don’t know what come
over you! All you seem to want to do is to make fun of me, an’ abuse me
character; but as you remember so many things that never happen, you
might as well remember dat it is me who is helping you to live in Colon,
an’ not Susan.”

“This don’t need any quarrel,” observed Jones hastily. “If I did want to
quarrel I could find plenty of reason, but I bear all the ill-treatment
I receive in silence, being disposed thereto by an equanimitous attitude
of mind.”

“That is the same like my attitude of mind,” peacefully remarked Mr.
Proudleigh, “for if there is a man that don’t like confusion it is me. I
didn’t mean to vex Deborah at all, an’ I beg to ask her pardon as she
get offended by what I say. In fact, I don’t see how she should think I
could want to insult me own sister before a perfec’ stranger like Mister
Jones, an’ she is very wrong to think so. But it is because I am old an’
poor. Ef I was a young man, an’ earning me two pounds a week, all de
sort of words dat everybody give me now I wouldn’t hear at all. But when
a man is poor, dog can bark at him an’ him can’t say a word; so
everybody take an advantage of me an’ tell me what them do for me,
though them never remember what I do for them. However, I apologize to
Deborah, an’ I excuse her, for she was always very ignorant.”

“When you thinkin’ of goin’ home, Mr. Jones?” asked Susan with a view to
putting an end to the dispute between her aunt and father. She knew how
spiteful Miss Proudleigh could be, and was well aware that if her
usually mild parent was once thoroughly annoyed, the recital of his
grievances and wrongs would form the main topic of all conversations for
the next three or four days.

“I haven’t determined on a date hitherto, Mrs. Mackenzie,” Jones
replied, “but I contemplate a speedy departure from these regions. If I
wasn’t a man of strong mentality, all the sufferings I have had to put
up with in Colon would drive me mad. But I have a solid brain, an’ what
would kill some people passes by me like ‘the idle wind which I regard
not.’ That is Shakespeare,” he explained.

“Well, it’s a good thing to be able to go home when y’u like, Mr. Jones,
an’ you are an independent man with no responsibility. My ’usband have
to work hard to keep his wife in comforts, so he can’t travel about like
you, an’ go out to see his friends an’ enjoy himself every night. Some
people like to ’ave everything, you know, without any responsibility,
but Mackenzie is different.”

“I don’t know anything about your husband, Mrs. Mackenzie,” Jones
answered superciliously. “He and I was never friends in Jamaica: we
didn’t walk in the same street at all. Of course, when a man come to a
place like Colon, he get to know a lot of people he would never know at
home. I moved in good society in Jamaica. The very night before I leave
for Colon I was entertained by a few high-toned educated friends of
mine, an’ if I had paid attention to what one of them say to me, I
wouldn’t have been made a fool of here. But I was always of a confiding
an’ trustful disposition, an’ put a lot of faith in females.”

A sarcastic laugh from Miss Proudleigh, directed at Susan, welcomed this
remark. But Susan took no notice of it.

It was now past ten o’clock, and Catherine was repeatedly yawning. Jones
rose to leave.

“This has been an unexpected pleasure, Mrs. Mackenzie,” he said, as he
bade Susan good night. “If we do not meet again, you may say to Mr.
Mackenzie that y’u saw me here in excellent spirits.” He flourished his
hat and bowed as he spoke, then marched with stately step out of the
room.

“Dat is a perfec’ gen’leman,” said Mr. Proudleigh.

Susan thought so too.

* * * * *

After that visit to Colon, Culebra became more distasteful than ever to
Susan. In spite of her possession of “comforts,” her life seemed to her
to be singularly uninteresting; she felt that she had nothing new to
expect, she experienced no pleasant thrill of anticipated adventures;
she loved excitement, and at Culebra, except for the accidents, there
was nothing like excitement to look forward to. She might have children.
But though she possessed the instinct of motherhood as fully as any
other normally developed woman, the coming of children seemed to her to
be a mere matter of course, something too that would bind her down more
tightly to her humdrum existence as Mackenzie’s wife. She began to
regret even the days in Jamaica when she had the shop—days that now
seemed so very far away, though only a few months had passed since she
had come to Panama.

She had no doubt now, she no longer strove to conceal from herself, that
she had made a mistake in marrying Mackenzie. He was a good husband, a
steady man; but he was over forty and very uninteresting. She could not
even quarrel with him: he did nothing to provoke a quarrel. If she was
petulant, he was patient; if she became a little unreasonable, he
yielded with a good humour which she instinctively felt was not the
result of weakness. She stood in some awe of him; as a friend he had
been altogether desirable, but now as her husband she discovered that
his disposition was alien to hers; she respected but could not care for
him.

She could not even complain that he restricted her liberty, for he did
not. She was free in reason to go where she liked; if she had not left
Culebra but once since her marriage, that was not because she could not
have done so had she wished. The situation, clearly, was hopelessly
annoying. As some one had to be blamed for it, she blamed Jones.

It was all his fault. He should have acted differently. It was not
because he had refused to marry her that she had left him. It was
because he had taken to drinking, gambling, and bad habits generally;
because he had made himself objectionable and might at any moment have
found himself within the four walls of a prison. She had chosen the best
way of escape open to her, and everybody agreed that she had acted
wisely. She was in no way at fault.

But this self-vindication did not tend to console her, for, by an
apparently perverse arrangement of things, she was the sufferer while
Jones was as free as air. Susan was too intelligent not to feel that,
however tragically Jones might conduct himself just now, he was likely
to find consolation as time went on. She believed profoundly in her
lasting influence over every man who had fallen in love with her; there
was Tom’s case as an illustration. But she doubted whether that
influence would keep anyone like Jones, from falling into the clutches
of other women, especially as she was married and separated from him for
ever. “The same way he could do without me before I know him, he will do
without me now,” she thought ruefully; and this was the more certain if
he should return to Jamaica. And if he did return, what chance would
there be of his coming back, in a hurry at any rate?

Besides, even if he did come back, how would that help her? They now met
as acquaintances merely. She addressed him as Mr. Jones. He spoke to her
as Mrs. Mackenzie. Everything was as it should be from the point of view
of propriety: he treated her as a married woman ought to be treated. Yet
she would have much preferred a bitter quarrel with him, an open
flinging of reproaches from one to the other, passionate upbraiding.
Why, she did not exactly know, save that the sarcastic politeness of
both, and the thinly veiled innuendoes they had indulged in at her
relatives’ house on the night of their meeting, seemed to her a mere
sham: they had not spoken to one another as they would have liked to
speak. They had merely acted a part.

She wondered if all married women felt, as she did, that marriage was an
awful bore. And she wondered if her endurance could stand the strain of
that boredom for years.

“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.