Old Reliable in Africa/Chapter 14
THE POOL OF THE SEVEN PALMS
NEVER before in his life had Old Reliable possessed a servant of his own—and the bossing of Said kept him busy. In Cairo the Colonel enjoyed three days of comparative peace, for the groveling Said sneaked along behind his master, and Zack did little else but strut the streets. Their business being finished in Cairo, the Colonel's party left by rail for Luxor, thence on the narrow-gauge railroad to Shellal, where they must take a boat—moving always southward, deeper and deeper into the country of the sun.
Morning on the Nile, near the Sudan frontier.
The sun arose and for an instant hung midway of the horizon—like the opening of a fiery furnace door, which glared over the edge of the world. Out flowed its molten blast—a ravenous, consuming stream that sizzled across the desert. Widening as it came, the scarlet-yellow torrent rushed on and on, scorched the grim, brown knolls, filled the hollows with lakes of quivering heat, scintillated on the chocolate Nile, and flashed into sharp silhouette a solitary tugboat.
This tugboat—bull-doggish, irreverent, British—hurled its defiant smoke into the sky; for was it not transporting Colonel Spottiswoode and Zack Foster, Effendi, to the Beni Yeb Plantation, where Fergus Cameron extorted fifteen thousand cantars of cotton annually from the dry Sudan? Cameron had already conquered a foot-hold in the desert; with the aid of these Americans they would subdue unto the plow that vast Ghezireh, south of Khartum. The tugboat continued puffing. To their front, to the east and west, stretched those barren immensities of the Sudan—brownish, brickish and dingy red through all the shriveling ages. Behind them lay Upper Egypt, strangled in the sand.
Colonel Spottiswoode slept on deck, else he could not have slept at all. At the first dazzle of light he got up. There was no rolling over for a second nap after that scorching sun made ready for business. He stepped into a pair of heelless slippers and stood at the rail in his pajamas.
Lyttleton Bey—veteran of many a Dervish fight—warned him from the next pallet: "I say, Colonel Spottiswoode, you'd better put on your helmet; that sun might bowl you over."
"Why, the sun is not half up."
"No matter; half of it does the grubby work—then it's label your bedding to the hospital."
Zack Foster, Effendi, posed on the forward deck. Nobody need remind Zack to put on his helmet; he had never once removed it since the Colonel made that gladsome purchase. The Cairene shopkeeper handed it down—dazzling white, with broad blue streamers and polka dots. Zack glimpsed those fluttering speckles crossed fore and aft—and surrendered. He strutted the streets of Cairo for three days, while the Colonel and the Syndicate bought supplies. In that helmet Zack had startled the sleep of Egypt, flitting through Luxor on donkey-back, like a black bat with blue wings. In it he had suffocated on the narrow-gauge train to Shellal, where the windows were of smoked glass to shut out the desert glare, but where nothing could shut out the desert dust. On the mail-boat from Shellal to Haifa Zack donned his helmet and defied the sun.
Beneath the sloping bank at Wadi Haifa they found their special tugboat waiting to convey them to Beni Yeb, where the Southern planter would confer with the Scotch pioneer, before proceeding to yet more savage lands. At two o'clock in the afternoon the pitiless white sunshine glinted on the river and dazzled on the desert. Three white-clad white men in white-clad chairs lounged beneath their awnings on the afterdeck. The tug headed straight across the current for the landing at Beni Yeb. A triangular gleam marked the roof of a house which threw out its flat, cemented angle from a clump of palms, flanked by denser vegetation. The vivid greens contrasted brilliantly after so many miles of dirty yellow.
Lyttleton pointed. "Look, Colonel, and see what irrigation may accomplish."
At this moment Colonel Spottiswoode was not thinking of irrigation. His eyes and mind were fascinated by a shimmering mirage which he had been watching for an hour.
"That water is perfectly plain," he remarked, "and those palm trees as distinct as trees on this side of the river."
"So they are," assented Lyttleton, "yet there's nothing but desert."
"And you say it's all imagination; or rather an optical illusion?" the Colonel asked incredulously. "For instance, you and I may count those palm trees and agree as to the number; both of us see precisely the same thing—which cannot be imagination."
The Colonel counted: "One, two, three—I see seven palms: four in a cluster, two others close together, and one stands off a little farther to the left."
Lyttleton nodded, "Quite true; that's what I see."
"See that small rocky island in the little lake? Why couldn't I take my rifle and splash a bullet in that water?"
"I fancy you could—if the water were there. Many a poor beggar has gone to his death trying to splash his canteen in mirage-water."
"Tell me about them."
Lyttleton settled deep into his wicker chair; he loved the desert, and loved to talk of it. "These Ababdeh Arabs know every foot of Nubia. They have regular routes, uncharted, like the course of a vessel at sea; yet they travel almost infallibly from well to well. Of course, if they veer to right or left and miss a well, their nerves go to fiddle-strings; they die and shrivel up. Well-known landmarks become invisible, distorted or unrecognizable. Sometimes the ghost of a familiar rock or tree will confront the famished beggar from a totally different direction, and lure him to the Belly of Stones. The main caravan routes are marked by bleaching bones, like bricks strewn along a garden walk."
"What sort of a country is it out yonder—behind that ridge?" The Colonel pointed to the empty west.
"No end of sand and sky; a few roving Arabs, goatherds, outlaws, religious fanatics, unpleasant people—yet oh, well, one never gets bored."
Lyttleton had seen much of these turbaned tribes, and the mystical grip of the desert held him fast. Like others who once tasted service in this land, many times he had quitted it for ever—only to wander back and back again.
Colonel Spottiswoode was beginning to understand this horizon fever. "Seven palms," he mused; then he caught sight of Zack puffing at a cigar, and displaying himself before the servants, particularly the attentive Said, who jumped whenever his worshipful black Effendi shouted: "Whar he!"
Colonel Spottiswoode smiled and called, "Zack! Oh Zack!"
"Comin', suh." Zack marched like a soldier, for McDonald had hinted to the negro that Arab traders in Wadi Haifa mistook him for a certain famous Sudani officer, who had fought in Mexico under Marshal Bazaine. So Zack touched his helmet and saluted.
The Colonel nodded towards the mirage. "Zack, how's your eyesight? Can you see that spring?"
"Sholy, Cunnel, I jes been watchin' dat spring."
"We've made a bet. How many trees do you count?"
Zack squirmed himself to meet his responsibility. He squinted and counted, and counted and squinted; then announced: "Seben, Cunnel. I figgers out seben trees—ef I makes no mistake."
"Told you so, Lyttleton. Now, Zack, you're an old bear hunter—how far is that spring from the house?"
"Lordee, Cunnel, dat spring ain't nowhars away fum dat house. 'Pears to me like it mought be right in de back yard. Jes medjer from dat big tree—dat bigges' one off by itself—not dem chunky trees nigh to de ribber."
Zack indicated a lone and unusually tall palm that stood somewhat away from the Nile, in direct line behind the plantation house. "Dat spring is jes 'bout betwixt forty-nine and fifty yards behin' dat tree—ef I makes no mistake. Howsomever, ef you-all is got a bet, I'm gwine to step it off jes as soon as us gits to de landin'."
"Lyttleton, I'll bet that Zack's right."
Zack's attitude justified the boss in betting on his correctness, but McDonald, with a Scotch mind that never jibbed its job, inquired, "This is the man you were speaking of, who gets labor for your plantation in America?"
"Yes, sir, Zack's the best on earth when it comes to rounding up a bunch of niggers. How about it, Zack?"
Zack bulged out like a goatskin bag that is swelling up with water. "I reckon dat's so, Cunnel. I kin git niggers whar d'ain't no niggers. Dey jes nacherly sprouts up outen de groun', ef dey knows I wants 'em."
"How do you manage it in America?" McDonald hammered away diligently at his job of pounding out the statistics.
Zack tendered him the goods, "Lordee, mister, it's jes dat easy, tain't no pleasure to brag about it. Niggers follers each other same as sheep; dey gits de travel itch an' loves to move. Ef a man know his business, he jes finds de ole bellwether and pokes a notion in his head dat ramblin' time is come. I picks me out a place whar de niggers ain't made enough to pay for rent an' vittles; den I dresses up real fine, gives 'em a few cigars and brags and brags on de Cunnel's lan' growin' a bale to de acre, jes by stickin' seed in de groun'. Nigger needn't do nothin' 'cept take a seat an' wait. Den I specify dem reg'lar rations what Cunnel issues on Saddy night. Niggers mought not be studyin' dat bale to de acre, but reg'lar rations ev'y Saddy night—dat's what fetches 'em."
McDonald weighed these statements from a British point of view, and remarked, "That's what we need in the Shilluk country—a man who can induce those blacks to work."
Zack smiled benignantly, as if the British officer were a mere child. "Shucks, mister, is dat all? You jes make yo' min' easy. Ole Reliable don't promise nothin' what he can't do. I'll have dem niggers swarmin' roun', same as follerin' a circus peerade."
These few kind words from Zack Foster, Effendi, reassured Bimbashi McDonald, who joined his friends in watching the preparations to receive them at Beni Yeb.
For miles a towering chimney had split the horizon, like the trunk of an enormous decapitated palm. Sunshine glittered on the corrugated roof of the pump-house in which they heard the whirring of wheels. An English engineer came to the door in his overalls. Shifting groups of turbans circled round a British helmet at the landing place. The man underneath the helmet wore white cotton clothes, innocent of starch, always spotless in the morning, always spattered at night; the calves of his legs were wrapped in leather, and looked remarkably solid.
"That's Cameron," said McDonald, pointing; but the Colonel would have known.
Zack clapped his hands and shouted: "Whar he!" Said instantly appeared.
"Hustle, you niggers, wid dem gripsacks." Zack gave his orders. "Us gwine to git off dis boat."
As a rule Said caught the general drift of British language, but Zack's Alfro-American lingo flunked him. And yet, having spent his life-time dodging the donkey stick and the courbash, Said's legs were nimble and his wits exceeding quick. "Very good, Effendi," and Said hustled—which always tickled Zack.