Old Reliable in Africa/Chapter 16
THE EXPECTED ONE
LUCKILY for Colonel Spottiswoode, his dinner did not depend upon Zack's return with a bucket of mirage water. And the Colonel soon forgot, as Zack frequently departed on hurry errands and neglected to come back. Dinner was served on a broad brick terrace, fronting the Nile and open to the heavens. Red-shaded candles on the table glowed dim beneath that vivid moon of Africa. A ragged skyline hemmed them in with a fantastic silhouette of palms; curving lines followed the spread of low acacias, tapering off into a feathery fringe of shrubs in which pale green paroquets had chattered themselves to sleep. Behind each chair stood a silent Jaalin in purest white, with tribal gashes across his cheeks. Cameron rested his powerful forearm on the table and talked—he talked of things, for Cameron was a man who did things. Now he talked steadily and forcefully of what was being done on Beni Yeb. It was a triumph for this stranger of the despised religion, coming to deserted lands upon the heels of a massacre, reassuring a terrified population and setting them to work again. As Cameron individually had triumphed, on Beni Yeb, so had the British triumphed throughout that measureless Sudan. And, as part of their success, they meant to grow cotton for Lancashire spindles.
They had sat long at the table, and it was very late when McDonald pushed back his chair. and suggested, "My dear Colonel, would you be so kind as to call your black man? Let Cameron hear his method for getting labor. You know that's my part of the show at Wadi Okar."
The Colonel smiled and shouted for Zack. No Zack. Then: "Wahid! Mahomet Mansour!" Mahomet slipped in like a phantom, but knew nothing. Said came after, salaaming to the very ground, and in the name of Allah the Compassionate, he protested ignorance of his master's whereabouts. Colonel Spottiswoode shook his head, "Sorry, gentlemen. Zack is an old reprobate; he's probably gone a-rambling, and won't turn up until morning."
Cameron looked annoyed; if a reprobate went rambling around these fellaheen—particularly their women he might never turn up at all. The Nile was too near. So Cameron dispatched Kali to find the rambler—Kali, the young sheikh, versed in the white man's tongue and the Jaalin circumlocution. It was Kali who brought Fudl to the table—Fudl of the tarboush and white-buttoned shoes. Allah had given Fudl with his own eyes to see the worshipful black Effendi moving toward the desert, with a bucket in his hand. Fudl had remained seated beneath the acacia tree, but the Effendi did not return.
"Bucket? Bucket?" the Colonel repeated vaguely. "Oh yes, I remember. He started out just before dinner to bring me a bucket of water from the spring."
"Spring? What spring?"
"He said there was a spring about fifty yards back of the house—oh!" Colonel Spottiswoode sprang up from, his chair and exclaimed: "That fool went out to find the mirage! Lyttleton, McDonald, you remember the mirage? When we called Zack to count those trees? That's where he went."
"Extr'ord'n'ry! 'pon my word! Extr'ord'n'ry!" ejaculated McDonald and Lyttleton.
Cameron spoke bluntly: "I trust you are mistaken. It would be a grubby matter for him to get lost—and might be far worse if he met any one. Kali cannot find him in the village."
The Colonel laughed. "You don't know Zack. He's all right." Yet the Colonel felt uneasy when he went to bed.
In that first pale light before the dawn, Kali mounted to the topmost roof, where Cameron slept, and waked the Scotchman by gently rubbing his foot after the manner of the East. The Jaalin stood at the foot of Cameron's angereb—slender, erect, with the straight nose and black eyes that belong to desert men. He spoke rapidly, and, although Colonel Spottiswoode could not understand a syllable, it was evident that something unusual had occurred. Cameron's square jaw set firmly; he asked one incisive question, then bounded up. Kali leaned over the edge of the parapet and shouted. Three servants went flying with orders. McDonald understood Arabic imperfectly; he had not served in the Sudan during those murderous years of the Mahdi and Khalifah. He glanced at Lyttleton, while Cameron tersely explained the situation. "Dress; full arms—and quickly!" That was all Lyttleton said. Something had happened which meant a fight. McDonald understood that.
When Colonel Spottiswoode ran downstairs, buckling on his pistols, he found Lyttleton and McDonald unlocking their rifle case.
"Where are the peas?" asked McDonald in a business voice. Cameron pointed to the cartridge boxes, then wheeled upon Spottiswoode.
"Your man is in no end of a stew. Kali reports two hundred tribesmen approaching Beni Yeb. Your man is with them, on foot, a prisoner."
"What's the trouble?" the Colonel questioned. "Are these people hostile?"
Cameron shook his head. "No; they've been quiet for years. Can't understand them. Nobody understands an Arab. We must run out there and take a look at them. I suggest that you remain——"
"No. I shall go with you." The Colonel reached out to McDonald, who silently handed him a rifle.
"McDonald," he said, "I wish you would see that I get a horse. I couldn't shoot from a camel."
Messengers on swift camels were already padding away like the wind to summon Cameron's overseers—five stalwart British lads, sun-tempered and desert-wise, who would be worth a hundred of the fellaheen if it came to a brush. The Jaalins of Beni Yeb had learned promptitude from the Khalifah. Raid after raid had taught them to mount and vanish without delay—this tarteeb being followed with the precision of a fire-drill.
An even dozen white men, almost as brown as the Jaalins, fell in behind Cameron. The American, who felt that this was his quarrel, insisted upon riding in front. Horses, camels, donkeys, and a few timid stragglers on foot, headed west to meet the tribesmen. They crossed the narrowest part of Beni Yeb, not more than two hundred yards, between the Nile and the desert.
Pausing at the sands, Kali nodded towards a creeping mass of men and camels, donkeys, dogs, women and children. Cameron leveled his glass, scanned them critically, then lowered his glass and remarked: "Nigerines?"
"The Sheikh Tabira?"
Again Kali nodded, muttering words of Arabic explanation. What he said was for Cameron alone and seemed to puzzle him.
"Kali," he asked, "why do they come?"
"Allah knoweth their affairs," the Jaalin sheikh replied.
Colonel Spottiswoode grew anxious and McDonald whispered to him, "Might be a nasty row!" Spottiswoode drew his horse closer to Cameron and inquired, "Who are these Nigerines?"
"They're from the west, several thousand miles across the desert"—without taking his eyes from the approaching tribe.
"What are they doing here?"
"Small parties sometimes pass this way on their pilgrimage to Mecca. They travel slowly, working a week here, a few months there. Before the wars, half a tribe once stopped on Beni Yeb and made a crop."
"Do you think we'll have to fight them?"
"Can't tell. Old Tabira may want to ease his soul by killing a few Christians. He's a hadji now—a holy man; spent twenty-two years going to Mecca. See those children? They were born on the pilgrimage."
All of this was very curious, and tensely interesting to Colonel Spottiswoode. They sat their horses together, watching the half-orderly mob which pressed onward with the sun shining in their faces.
"I say, Spottiswoode"—Cameron spoke out suddenly, and earnestly—"can you imagine what it means to spend twenty-two years in that solitude, brooding on religion? A man goes daft with a fanatical, murderous madness. Can't you see how old Tabira might fancy himself inspired to run amuck with his tribe, and send a few Christians ahead of him to Paradise?"
The Nigerines continued to move across the empty sands, like figures cut out of card-board. The Sheikh Tabira, with the squeezed face, rode a tall camel, wearing an enormous white turban on his head. His long spear, held upright, reached to the ground. He muttered to himself, as one in an ecstatic trance. Ten paces behind their sheikh rode a rank of other blacks on excellent camels, armed with the same vicious-looking spears.
"Yonder's Zack!" the Colonel pointed. "See his gray hat?"
In an open space Zack walked alone. At even distances, on each side, almost as if they marched in a hollow square, rode files of men on donkeys; and across their rear came other donkeys with children, tents, plunder, dogs, goats—and women on foot.
When Zack saw the Colonel, he took two or three nervous steps, then slowed down again. He couldn't get out of that square, except by mixing up with those camels. The Colonel saw the whites of his eyes, and knew that Zack was scared. At a sign from Cameron, Kali rode out, dignified and deliberate, to greet the coming Nigerines: "May Allah give thee greatness upon thy greatness."
The sheikh halted. Every man, woman, child and animal stopped. Tabira lifted his hand, giving the desert sign of peace; and Kali responded likewise. What they said no one could hear, but they talked for so long a time that Lyttleton began to show his impatience. Then Kali came riding back, perplexed by the words of Tabira the Nigerine. In quick Arabic he delivered his message, and transferred the bewilderment to Cameron.
"Lyttleton Bey," Cameron called that experienced officer. "You understand these Mahometans much better than I do. Tabira says that his tribe has come to live on Beni Yeb. They follow their Expected One, who will remain with them as leader and teacher. Kali seems in a blue funk over it all. What can the devils mean?"
Lyttleton narrowed his eyes and squinted at the rigid band of Nigerines. "The Expected One?" he muttered. "I don't fancy the sound of that." When an old campaigner in that fanatical country of the sun hears of an Expected One having announced himself, he gives a quick gasp in the throat, then buckles on his fighting toggery. It means that people are going to get killed. McDonald vaguely understood, but Colonel Spottiswoode not at all. So the Colonel inquired: "What is an Expected One?"
Lyttleton's jaws snapped on the explanation. "These Mahometans look forward to a Deliverer, as foretold by the Koran. Once in a while some bally-brown beggar goes wild with hasheesh and proclaims himself the Expected One—the Mahdi. Somebody always believes him, and the slaughter starts."
"This may be different," Cameron suggested hopefully. "Tabira says that his people wish to plow and hoe and raise cotton—to settle on Beni Yeb."
"Be not deceived," warned Lyttleton. "I suggest that you give them a place to camp until we can talk it over."
Cameron conveyed his salaams and salutations, then watched Kali delivering the message: "The Sheikh Tabira and his people will rest in the shade, beside flowing water. When the sheikh is refreshed, then will Cameron Effendi talk with him. May Allah lengthen the days of the sheikh."
All of which sounded mighty fine, but Zack didn't like the way in which these people continued to surround him, when Sheikh Tabira led his tribe to the left. As they came opposite the Colonel, Zack dodged between a couple of donkeys and broke out of line. Having side-stepped the whole Nigerine proposition, he scuttled over to the Colonel.
"Zack, what the devil were you doing out there with those folks?"
Old Reliable did not answer. A cry from the Nigerines drew all attention back to them. From mouth to mouth the cry went forward until it reached Tabira, who wheeled his camel and hurried back. His people disorganized into a rabble, and swarmed towards the whites. Zack melted against the Colonel's horse, and looked uneasily at his late associates.
"Kali," ordered Cameron, "stop them! See what they want."
Kali urged his camel forward. Tabira shook his head and at first refused to be halted. His thin lips uncovered a row of jagged yellow teeth, his solitary eye changed into all the hues of blues and blacks, like a pot of boiling pitch. Kali had great trouble in persuading the sheikh to wait until his message should be communicated. Lyttleton and Cameron advanced and met the returning Kali, who told them excitedly, "Sheikh Tabira says the Inglesi must not take from him the Great Teacher. The Expected One is the guest of Sheikh Tabira, and must lie in his tent."
"Kali, what does the sheikh mean? Who is this Great Teacher?"
Kali, with a new deference in his voice and manner, indicated Old Reliable standing at the Colonel's saddlebow.
Cameron knew better than to laugh. "He's no teacher. He's Colonel Spottiswoode's servant."
"Servant?" Kali repeated, and shook his head stubbornly. They argued, but to no purpose. Cameron turned and called: "Colonel Spottiswoode, have your man step out and speak to those people. Tell them he will visit their camp this noon. Speak loudly. Kali will translate."
Zack walked forward gingerly a few steps—not too far. Those spears were long, and a skinny-armed wild man might perforate him.
"Say," he said. "You folks listen! I got to hurry up wid Cunnel to de big house an' git some breakfas'. Us is got plenty business. Den I'll come back to see you-all atter-while. Jes tell 'em dat." Kali bowed low and translated to the sheikh. Old Tabira listened reverently to those words from the Great Teacher.
First he dropped his head in obedience, then stretched forth a hand towards Fergus Cameron and said, "Allah hath given unto thee strong friends. I remain here." Then his tribe began to pitch their tents beneath the shade of the acacias.
Colonel Spottiswoode was very angry. "Zack—you infernal fool! What do you mean, bringing this herd of crazy men over here?"
"Now, Cunnel, please, suh, don't specify so rough. I ain't had nothin' to do wid 'em. Us jes met up wid one another in de big road; I couldn't make 'em go back. Dat's one hard-headed ole nigger—dat one-eyed feller."
Cameron spurred over, with as much of a smile as a Scotchman's face can ever wear, and broke into the conversation. "Tabira insists that his people want to become permanent tenants. Your man has agreed to teach them how to plant cotton."
Zack held his tongue and listened, while Cameron talked on fluently. "These Nigerines make excellent tenants. I'm glad to get every one of them. But how did your man persuade them?"
The Colonel didn't know, so Zack answered for himself, "Huh, mister! I don't have no trouble 'swadin' niggers. You-all gentlemen wuz talkin' 'bout needin' hoe-hands, an' dese niggers wuz lookin' for a good home; so I jes fotch 'em in. Dey been 'spectin' me for de longes' kin' o' time. Somebody must ha' tole 'em I wuz comin'."
"Extr'ord'n'ry! extr'ord'n'ry! 'pon my word—most extr'ord'n'ry!" Cameron repeated over and over to himself.
In the silence and safety of the plantation house Colonel Spottiswoode got Zack cornered, and nailed him. "Here, Zack! Now tell me the truth about these people? How did you manage to talk to them? That's what I can't understand."
"You see, Cunnel, it all come up dis way: Dar wuz a white feller livin' wid 'em. He didn't foller 'long wid de res', cause he 'peared shamed to meet you-all. When I fust arrived out to de camp, dey made a big rookus. Dis white feller axed me what wuz I doin' in dis country, an' I tol' him I come to teach dese niggers. Jes soon as he toted dat news to de crowd, dey said a whole lot, and den de white man axed me wuz I de 'Spected One, an' I 'plies back, I reckin' so—lots o' folks wuz lookin' fer me to come. When he 'spressed dat word to dem niggers, dey raised a terrible 'miration, an' he couldn't argue wid 'em no mo'. Dey 'sputed and 'sputed back'ards an' forrards till de white man got red in de face an' went back to his tent. Dis mornin' dat ole one-eyed nigger he wouldn't have it no other, way 'cept dey wuz all comin' 'long wid me."
"Well, Zack, you're in for it. You've got to stay here now and teach 'em. I'm going on up the river."
Zack worked off one of his sickest grins. "Cunnel, d'ain't nuff ropes on dis plantation to tie me. Dem folks danced all night, put ashes on deir heads an' stuck knives in deyselves. Made me so skittish I never slept a wink. I'm gwine when you goes. Fur's I'm concerned, I could travel right now!"
Lyttleton agreed with Zack. It might save an awkward situation for the strangers to travel at once. When the boat took them away, the Sheikh Tabira and his tribe gathered on the bank, howling at the departure of their long Expected One.
From Wadi Haifa to Khartum the lean Sudan flattens like a famished tiger, with lips against the Nile, sucking greedily at the chocolate colored water that is meat as well as drink. Gaunt from a million years of sun, the starveling creature falls prone at the river's brink. Yonder a knoll uprises; on the far horizon lies a reddish ridge.
Limitless spaces shimmer in the sun; space—nothing but space—desert spaces which, like eternity, have no beginning and no end. Beyond the imaginings of hasheesh dreams, run billowy waves of sand, leading to remoter red-brown purples. A half-buried temple stares out from its drift-piled tomb—stares through the glare and the heat and the silence.
In places a frazzled ribbon divides the water and the waste. This strip of arable Sudan is so narrow at times, that a date-palm, dabbling its feet in the water, casts its shadow into the irreclaimable desert. Here, perhaps, is a nile-wheel, a noggur's sail, a square yellow hut, or the white tomb of some religious devotee—and the pitiless sun. A monotone of river crawls across a ravenous land; vacancy, emptiness, a vastitude of sky and sand, and sunshine. Through the Sudan Zack and the Colonel passed from Wadi Haifa to Khartum.