Old Reliable in Africa/Chapter 11
THE BANDAGED BEGGAR
A LOW gray sea-wall defends the level sands at Alexandria. Against it throbs the ebb and flow of tepid waters. Behind that wall there runs a road, a faithful slavish road, conforming to every whim and curve and angle—a glaring sandy road, a staring vacant road. Beyond, is a row of cafés fronting the wall and facing the sea, empty as tombs—which can be seen from without, for customers never go within. But when the sun had turned to a copper ball and tumbled over the rim of the world, when evening winds toss spray above the wall, that road is transformed into a fashionable promenade. Tables and chairs appear in front of the cafés, and men come to occupy them. Out from their offices, from counting rooms of commerce, from palaces and dingy huts, come the beys and the beggars; the seller of lemonade clashes his cymbals, and the hawker of Indian figs shouts his wares.
It is a Noah's Ark of humanity, that promenade. The cocotte, painted and Parisian, swishes her skirts against the holy dervish; men of science touch elbows with fever-blooded adventurers; the swarthy Bedouin clicks his dice and calls his points across the café table to his blue-eyed Saxon opponent—for Alexandria is the strainer-rag of creation. She stretches her nets across the corner of three continents, and hauls a catch of motley fish—Copt and Kurd and Sudani, Scandinavian, Greek, and Scot—the flotsam of the Occident, the scum of the Orient. Tides of the East and tides of the West here mingle and fret in picturesque confusion. Every derelict drifts to Alexandria, for Alexandria is the strainer-rag of creation.
Somewhat retired from this skirmish line of cafés, with a broader waste of sand between its striped awnings and the sea-wall, stands the Grand Hotel Rameses. Here, as in less pretentious quarters, men dine in the open air, looking towards the water and drinking the Mediterranean breeze. The dining space is scarcely more than a booth, built on the level sands adjoining the hotel. But it is a very wide booth, a pavilion. A partition, the height of a man's waist, supports the framework for an awning which flaps and shivers in the wind. Those who pass and those who sit within, each may see the other, the beggar may look at the bey, and the pauper may observe the pacha as he dines. Men lounge in wicker chairs whilst drinking Turkish coffee and chatting over their cigarettes—men of the East, and women of the West. Women of the East appear not in public places.
Old Reliable had not yet emerged from his fumigation adventure, and the anxious Colonel awaited him. Colonel Spottiswoode sat in the Rameses smoking-room with the two British officers who had met him at the dock. They represented the New Sudan Syndicate and would conduct him to the proposed plantation. In this experiment, so dear to British hearts, and so close to British pockets, the government lent its active aid and contributed its best men. Lyttleton Bey was fifty, wiry, resolute, tanned; McDonald Bimbashi, somewhat younger, slim, resolute, tanned. Both wore white linens. The American had already put himself upon a cordial footing—there being little difference between them in blood, ideals or traditions. The British officer in the Sudan is a picked man—the pick of picked men—else he will not be assigned to Anglo-Egyptian service. Lyttleton had campaigned with Roberts at Kandahar, and with Kitchener at Khartum. McDonald was a subaltern at Mafeking, and lived in further hopes.
Colonel Spottiswoode leaned across the table, bowing to Gregory Lykoff and Demetrius Gargarin. The hunted and the hunter sat three tables away from him, in the center of the smoking room. While his acquaintance on board the Olga had been no more than a smile and nod in passing, yet the Colonel was glad to renew it, and to recognize a familiar face. Lykoff and Gargarin being compatriots and cabin-mates, it seemed natural that they should sit chatting over their coffee. They kept together because they feared to separate. Lykoff, on tenter-hooks until Old Reliable had delivered his priceless cipher, felt easier at knowing exactly where Gargarin was. And Gargarin's sole chance of capturing that cipher lay in cuddling close to Lykoff. Meanwhile he waited for a report from the man whom he had detailed to ascertain if Zack were entangled in their affair.
To Europeans in conventional dress Colonel Spottiswoode gave little heed. But the twisted turbans and filmy gowns of the Mahometans fascinated him. Nubian waiters moved noiselessly amongst the tables in garments of white, the red tarboush on their heads, red shoes on unsocked feet, and broad red bands about their middles. A beggar tottered past, clutching the low partition with both hands, and trembling in a palsy. The Colonel could only see the upper half of this man, a gaunt high-cheeked Arab with dirty band ages around his head. He groped along, peering under the canopy for such as might give alms to one groaning beneath the chastisements of Allah. When this beggar reached the front gap in the balustrade he fell, a limp huddle of rags from which came forth an open palm and wheedling voice: "For love of the Prophet—I am a famished man—Allah will reward thee——" The Nubian waiter, reckless of Allah's rewards, kicked him up with none too soft a foot; he limped away like a crippled dog, and sank again from exhaustion. Fiercely he reviled the Nubian: "May thy hand be blasted—may thy sons desert thee—may——" The waiter turned his back, intent upon the fetching of more cigarettes and the receiving of more piasters, with scant uneasiness for a beggar's malediction. Being no longer watched, the old man arose from the sands; his desert eyes roved across the spaces between himself and the sea-wall looking for something, or seeking for somebody. Then he came slipping back, inch by inch until he had resumed his crouching position and his old whine: "May Allah prosper thee; behold I perish." But none took notice of him. As he stumbled back his shrewd glance of scrutiny rested no longer upon Lykoff than upon any other man. Lykoff gave no sign of recognition. And beggars were far too common in Alexandria for the Bloodhound to observe him.
Darkness came, as darkness comes in Africa, with the down-going of the sun. Colonel Spottiswoode snapped his watch, "Isn't it time for that hackman to be getting back with my servant? I'm worried about old Zack."
McDonald laughed, "Patience, my dear Colonel Spottiswoode; nobody hurries in Egypt. 'Haste! haste!' we urge, and the Arab answers 'Bukra.'"
"That must be like the Italian 'domani'?"
"No, it's worse; 'Domani' means 'to-morrow'; 'bukra' signifies a vague and indeterminate future which will never come. Tarry in the Orient for a while; you'll get used to it, and like it."
Lyttleton Bey clapped his hands. "Wahid," he called. Instantly a slim yellow man appeared at his elbow with the respectful and scarcely uttered "Effendi?" A few words in Arabic sent Hassan the servant hastening to sentinel the approach of Old Reliable.
Everything was so new to the American that he took his eager chance to learn. "What was that you called out?" he asked—having already heard the word a dozen times.
"'Wahid.' It is the Arabic numeral meaning 'one'; we use it to summon a servant, one servant, any servant, the first servant who may hear."
"Oh! that's it. I was wondering if all these yellow men were named 'Wahee'——"
"W-a-h-i-d," Lyttleton spelled the word and pronounced it. "By the way, we have engaged your servant, your personal attendant. You can't get along without him, and you can't get along with him."
"Fudl! Fudl!" Lyttleton clapped his hands again. "Effendi," the prompt answer came from a collection of benches and tables across the narrow side street, from a native coffee-house where servants waited the orders of their masters. Fudl stood before them—the same gown, a tarboush instead of a turban, and European shoes with white buttons. Fudl was a progressive.
"Fetch Mahomet Mansour."
"Very good, Effendi"; the Arab moved off silently and beckoned to a second man who had been sitting on the bench beside him.
"Peace upon you, Excellency. May Allah prosper thee and multiply his blessings——" Mahomet Mansour greeted them in a parroted sentence. A squatty Berberine was Mahomet, the color of a russet orange, who stood half-bent and waited.
Colonel Spottiswoode was experienced in all sorts and conditions of negroes; but this introduced him to a new variety. It amused him to possess a servant with red shoes and no heels, a long-tailed shirt of silk, and confectionary stripes, and no breeches, eyes half-shut like those of a fat pig.
"What is your will, Effendi?"
"Is this my servant?" Colonel Spottiswoode inquired.
"If you like. Fudl has recommended him."
The inquiry lingered upon the Colonel's face so undecidedly that Mahomet dived into the conjurer's pocket of his robe. He might have produced a white rabbit or a pianola, which would not have surprised the Colonel. But he didn't. He merely unwrapped a handful of letters, well-worn, breaking into creases, and gaping at the folds.
"Dragoman for American Effendi in Noo-york; this that Effendi he say: I, Mahomet Mansour talk the Ingleese very good; honest man, he say, I, Mahomet Mansour."
Mahomet submitted this document as Exhibit No. 1. Colonel Spottiswoode put on his specs and examined—all things in this country interested him. The Britons had hired so many servants, and had disproved so many bogus eulogies that their faith grew censorious.
The Colonel indulged his curiosity concerning these letters wherein various American tourists extolled Mahomet Mansour as dragoman, interpreter, purchasing agent, washerwoman, cook, camel-driver, first aid to the injured—all the versatilities of Egypt.
"One great pacha, see! Americain prince; him you must could know. Sheekargo see!" The Colonel admitted his lamentable ignorance concerning Mr. Theophilus Warwine of Chicago, Illinois, but the peculiar name stuck in his memory.
"How much are your wages?" he asked.
"The month, three hundred piasters tariff; it is nothing; I, Mahomet can certify—for the love——"
"Hold on," the Colonel stopped Mahomet's patter. "How much is all that?"
Lyttleton Bey interpreted, "A piaster is tuppence ha' penny—three hundred, that would be twelve sovereigns, about sixty dollars."
"What does he do for that?" the Colonel glanced towards Mahomet and wanted to hear him talk.
Mahomet warmed up, turned on his orotund inflection, and gesticulated: "I show you the bazaars, the Mosque Ahmad. We see the birrymeed——"
"The birrymeed; birrymeed—tall—so, aglib."
"Burymede? where is that?" the American shifted his inquiry to McDonald; the place had such a sporty name, like a race course.
"Birrymeed! birrymeed!" repeated Mahomet.
"He means the pyramids," suggested McDonald.
"Aiwah! very good, Effendi; yes, birrymeed; birrymeed very much high, big climb up. Tomb of great King"—Mahomet paused at a sign from Lyttleton Bey, who again explained, "The Arabs have no letter 'P' in their language, and they can not pronounce it. They say 'byramid.'"
"Aiwah! Aiwah!—yes, yes, birrymeed; birrymeed," Mahomet smiled his satisfaction; "I show you dembles——"
"Peace, Mahomet," Lyttleton silenced the Berberine.
"Thy will, Effendi." Mahomet bowed and listened with all deference. Then Lyttleton announced the contract in English for the American's benefit: "Colonel Spottiswoode engages you for his servant. Your wages will be seventy-five piasters the month, and all expense."
"What the Effendi says, so it must be. Ikattar Allah kherak."
"We depart this night for Cairo," Lyttleton further informed Mahomet; "then travel to the Sudan, south of Khartum in the country of the sun; a far journey. Go now, Mahomet, and make you ready."
Mahomet's eyes glistened. This meant long service at good pay. His master must purchase much food and many necessaries along the route; Mahomet, being thrifty, would profit greatly in these traffickings. He lost those letters again in his robe, and, bowing, went his way. Mahomet had gone but a few moments, when Colonel Spottiswoode burst into a laugh. "Maybe I'll have to hire another one like him for Zack."
"Who is Zack? your friend? Of course, he must have a servant." Lyttleton lifted his hand to clap for Fudl, but the Colonel stopped him, "Zack is my negro. I brought him from home to wait on me; but since we left New York the shoe has been on the other foot. It takes all my time to look after him."
"By all means; by all means——"
"No; I was joking. Yet I don't know. It might be worth fifteen dollars a month to be rid of wondering what has happened to Zack. He's a faithful negro, but can be of no help to me. We might use him on the plantation to show the new hands how to plow and hoe—— Look! Look! who are those people? there in the corner? standing?" The Colonel directing Lyttleton's attention to a spectacular group of silent men. Just inside the room, beneath the canopy, he beheld an Oriental tableau the like of which his American eyes had never rested upon. The central figure—he would have been a central figure anywhere—was a powerfully built man, scarcely brown, near to that sandy-reddish color of the desert. His elevated brow, incisive eyes, clear-cut nose and thin lips, marked him as a man of distinction in any land. Draped in robes of many colors, an elaborate and graceful turban, he stood with arms folded in repose, as if his superior soul scarcely noted the kaleidoscopic follies of humankind. Six gleaming spears formed a hedge behind him, in the hands of six rigid tribesmen. It was as if some desert sultan with his bodyguard had stepped out from the Arabian Nights. No wonder the Colonel whispered, "Who is that?"
Lyttleton glanced around; his face grew serious as he bent nearer Colonel Spottiswoode, and whispered, "Some day we may hear too much of that man—perhaps as a more dangerous Mahdi. Even now his name is on the lips of all the Faithful—Mahomet ben Muza Gazan, a sheikh from the North Sahara. See that green in his turban? He's a descendant of the Prophet, and gives the French no end of trouble. He dreams of uniting all Northern Africa into a Moslem Empire, Morocco, Algiers, Tunis—Egypt, perhaps. This is the month of the pilgrimage; he journeys to Mecca with a retinue of holy men and warriors—they are camped outside the city. Then he will be a 'Hadji,' enormously increasing his prestige. His next step, possibly, is to preach a 'jehad' or holy war."
"There's fighting already amongst the Riffs," added McDonald.
Lyttleton Bey spoke in the most guarded tones; the American listened with eyes fixed upon that unmoving figure, while Mahomet Mansour hurried across the sands, entered like a fluttering shadow, and said something to his master.
"Good! Colonel Spottiswoode, here's the carriage with your black man."
Lykoff and Gargarin were sitting much nearer to the sheikh, but Lykoff was not interested in desert problems. Through the gap in the low partition he could still see the beggar, and was the first to hear the crunch of wheels which toiled through muffling sand. The carriage halted and a British soldier stepped out.
"Here you are," he said, and Old Reliable climbed down from the box where he had been sitting beside the driver.