Old Reliable in Africa/Chapter 13
THE RUNNING PILL
THE adroitness with which these Arabs produced other Arabs amazed the Colonel; it was like rubbing the magic lamp for a jinn to appear. This newest acquisition, scrawnier and somewhat darker than the others, was a Dongalawi, and his name was Said. Like Mahomet, Said possessed letters. In fact he produced the same letters. When Said unfolded them the first name to catch the Colonel's eye was "Theophilus Warwine of Chicago, III." "Here," he said, "this is the same letter that Mahomet——"
Immediately Said and Fudl joined their voices in a duet of explanation—"Said's wife had made the mistake—true it is, Excellency——"
Said snatched up the package and darted out, winging his way like a bat through the lights, and dodging into the darkness. Breathless he came to the coffee house of Selim, where Mustafa, the dragoman, was playing at draughts. Said threw down his letters: "Mustafa, give me quickly other letters——" A fair exchange is no robbery. Said swapped recommendations with Mustafa. Each could use one as well as the other—legal tender in any hands. Then Said sped back to his prospective employer. "True is it, O thou Excellency—they were of my brother—my wife—forgiveness, Excellency——" Simple-hearted Said, he got the job, and Old Reliable got a servant.
When Fudl choked Zack from the feeding-trough Lyttleton clapped his hands, and shouted, "Wahid! Said! Said!"
"Effendi," made answer Said, the scrawny, brown man.
"Zack," the Colonel pointed to Said, "here is your servant. He will take charge of you."
Zack did not smile; it was too momentous an occasion for mirth. From the fullness of his active day he remarked, "Yas, suh, Cunnel, I got bizness a plenty fer him to 'tend to."
"No doubt of it," laughed the Colonel. "Now don't bother us for awhile."
Meanwhile McDonald and Lyttleton had spread a stack of invoices on the table—lists of planting machinery, plows, hoes, every thinkable variety of cotton-seed, bagging, ties, supplies of all descriptions, a list of the articles suggested by Colonel Spottiswoode as probably necessary to stock a new plantation. To this the British had added many curious things of which a Southerner could not guess the use. They discussed it item by item—seeking to discover what might be lacking.
"You must remember, my dear Colonel," said Lyttleton, "that if we need a tool we can't walk into a shop and purchase it. We must send to England, or America—which requires weeks, perhaps months."
Hence the formidable outfit.
"I'm afraid, gentlemen," remarked the Colonel, "that you will find this a very costly experiment."
Lyttleton shrugged his shoulders, "We want to see if those lands will produce cotton. If it costs ten shillings a pound, our directors care nothing for that. They must produce cotton." Then they plunged into a wilderness of plantation detail—labor, water, climate, soil, every thing.
Their preoccupation left Zack to his own devices. The Sheikh Muza had departed with his retinue, and Zack was glad of that. A band commenced playing, somewhere along the front; and Zack was even gladder. The awnings flapped overhead. White spray arose lie a sheeted rain-ghost, appearing above the sea-wall and dropping back again. The beggar had returned. His skinny arm stuck out, like the withered limb of a tree. Zack rambled aimlessly towards the front. Lykoff watched closely and saw the old negro pause at the doorway, almost beside the beggar, and the two were quite alone. The whining voice went on whining, then pronounced a single word "Zack"—the beggar spoke it quite distinctly—"Zack" and Old Reliable heard. Lykoff saw the black man jump as if one had called him from the tomb; he whirled to run, then glanced down. The beggar's hand stretched up towards him: "Zack"—that single word again, low, but distinct, unmistakable.
"Who dat know me so good?"
Zack observed the beggar's left hand sneaking from beneath its dirty rags, and saw the glitter of gold. "Huh!" Zack grunted to himself: "dese sho is funny folks."
For a moment Old Reliable gazed down curiously at the money, then a half-forgotten recollection stirred within him. "Dar now! dat white man—on de steamboat!" He rummaged hastily through his pockets, fished out the capsule, and held it in his fingers. Lykoff was talking with Gargarin; Lykoff saw everything, yet spilled not a drop of the liqueur as he poured.
"What dat you say?" Zack leaned closer and asked the beggar again.
"Zack," repeated the beggar; but ten gold pieces were assurance enough. Zack reached for the coins. The beggar's long lean fingers clinched upon his gold; the hand was sinewy, with fingers made of whip cords and whitleather. The beggar nodded towards the capsule.
"Oh! Sholy, sholy! You want dis here pill." Zack dropped the capsule into the beggar's hand which transferred it instantly to the beggar's mouth, and the beggar's left hand loosed its gold. It was a wide-open transaction fairly conducted under the electric lights. Even then Lykoff did not tremble as he raised the liqueur to his lips. As yet Gargarin had gathered no suspicion.
After getting his money, Zack stepped inside, to a brighter zone of light, counting his gold as he came, and biting it with strong white teeth. He hadn't an idea whether it were good or bad, but he had once seen a white man testing gold money in that way. The beggar moved off very slowly—as a cloud dissolves. A quick-stepping European approached, and the beggar straightened visibly; he even stood erect for an instant, then relapsed into senility. That single movement betrayed him to Gargarin, and the Bloodhound sprang up, over-turning his chair. At his signal, three other men who sat in a corner leaped to their feet; another pair of men came running from the servant's café; and yet two others from across the sands.
The beggar saw them all. He dropped his staff and shook himself free of rags, revealing a slender body, lithe as a reed. Seven men closed in upon him, from as many directions.
Gargarin rushed across the dining room and vaulted the partition. Then the beggar moved, like a thin brown flash. Swiftly he crossed those shining spaces of sand and vanished into the yawning cavern of an alley. A naked man, the color of the night, like a night-bird he had disappeared. The chase vanished behind him, a silent chase of close-lipped men, darting as swallows dart into the black mouth of a chimney. They were gone. For one moment only Lykoff stood erect beside his table and watched those flying figures through the dark. Then he settled down quietly to his liqueur.
Old Reliable stood dazed: "Dar now! don't dat beat de Jews. Dat beggar nigger sho did arrive away from dis hotel in a mighty hurry."
There was no outcry, no confusion except the overturning of Gargarin's chair; which attracted no attention. Old Reliable chuckled to himself. "Huh! beggar swallowed dat pill; den lit out, same as a rabbit in a sedge fiel'. Dat must ha' been a runnin' pill."
The British officers had gone inside the hotel. Colonel Spottiswoode strolled toward Zack, where he stood with mouth wide-open, "Well, Zack," the Colonel asked, "how do you like this town?"
Zack grinned as he slipped the easy money into his pocket, "Dis place ain't a patchin' to Vicksburg. Lordee! I never see so many niggers wid so many diffunt kinds o' night shirts on."
"Aren't they curious?" the Colonel laughed. "Now, we're going to a country where they don't wear anything at all. You better be getting ready for the train."
Spottiswoode glanced around to see if anyone observed him before trying to use his first lesson in Arabic. Then he clapped his hands and shouted, "Wa-heed!"
"Here, Effendi," and Mahomet Mansour ran from across the street so promptly that Zack laughed.
"Come." The Colonel turned into the hotel with his servant. At the door he stopped, "Zack! call your man and get the baggage ready."
Zack adjusted the lapels of his coat and glanced across to the café, where Said was sitting, doing nothing. It would be so much fun to stir up Said, and Zack felt mightily tickled with the idea of calling a man who had to come. Zack Foster liked this town. Just as the Colonel had looked around, so did Zack, to be sure that none of his white folks were noticing. He grinned and grinned, then wiped the grins off his face, and pitching his voice at the full, Zack yelled, "Whar he? Whar he?"
"Here, Effendi." Said bowed low before his master. Zack wanted to laugh but received his servant with impressive solemnity.
Nobody paid attention to Zack; he was not getting his due attention. So Old Reliable drew out a broken cigar, licked it all around to make it draw, then fired up. "Come 'long, nigger," he ordered; and puffing, like a switch-engine, Old Reliable turned to enter the Grand Hotel Rameses.