Old Reliable in Africa/Chapter 17
THE DESERT CAPITAL
DUSK came on, a feverish, throbbing dusk that went gasping and panting through the sandy vacancies of Khartum. A dazzle clung to the twin minarets of the mosque, and struck the Sirdar's palace, lighting his Star-and-Crescent banner that floated beside the Union Jack. Below, it darkened upon many a mud-built hovel from which languid creatures crept, and began to stir amidst the wide silences of empty streets.
The Blue Nile pulsed against the bank, choking with its rich red silt from Abyssinia which would turn to wheat and cotton for children of the Nile in Lower Egypt. This had been his duty for so many thousand years that Father Nile pursued his drudgery in the changeless, patient way of the East. His thick waters rolled in eddies, against which the lateen sail of a lone noggur made no headway. The winds came puffy and uncertain, hot as the breath of a panting beast that had staggered across the desert. The foremost winds halted at the river, came to a trembling stop. The lateen sail shivered, and the noggur dropped backward with the current. Starving winds behind pushed the others onward, as famished cattle thrust their leaders from the drinking pool. Hot gasps blew into the faces of three white men who strolled along the embankment beside the river—Lyttleton Bey, McDonald Bimbashi and Colonel Beverly Spottiswoode of Vicksburg, Mississippi. A black shadow followed the planter, three paces behind, the shadow being one Zack Foster, Effendi, in white linens and a Panama hat, which had once belonged to the boss. Zack, in turn, had a shadow of his own, the faithful Said, who also carried a broad grin when donkey boys belabored their animals into a trot and stopped eagerly before the party. Zack wanted to ride, but Lyttleton, the tawnier of the British officers, shook his head at the donkey boys' supplications.
"Imshi, Imshi! Begone!" he said, not unkindly, yet finally, as one must speak to donkey boys. It was after six o'clock, so the gentlemen wore dinner coats and soft white shirts, starch being unknown in the Sudan. While his British friends talked of cotton prospects in the Ghezireh, the American found himself more interested in the Sudan's desert capital. He strolled between a double row of trees that overhung a broad white road running parallel with the river. To his right were houses of sun-dried brick and some of wood, gazing out from palmy groves and irrigated gardens. These houses were British built and modern according to the Khartum idea; to the American they were less fascinating than the robed and turbaned Arabs who dotted the embankment, with here and there the straw hat of some European official, glad to lay aside his helmet when the sun went down. A Sudani girl squatted beside the water—flat-faced and black, with tribal gashes on her cheeks; a naked girl except for a necklace, and a kirtle of loose strings which dangled like a portière from the cord at her waist. Glistening and unabashed, she watched these foreign men.
Khartum was waking; throughout the day swaddled figures had dozed along the roadway, or drowsed against the shade of low mud walls, sleeping like rag dummies, with dirty robes wound around their heads. Flies swarmed and buzzed and tickled their callous feet. Now they sat up and blinked. Date-sellers nodded beside their shallow baskets, until twilight set them to sorting out their wares. A group of porters and donkey-boys gathered round two Berberines who played a game with bits of broken stones upon a checker board marked in the sand. A sakia boy halted his team to watch them; his oxen stopped, his wheel stopped, and the trickle of water ceased to flow. All day long, every day, through all the ages, the nile-wheel on the river's brink had clicked, clicked, clicked. Old Zack watched the oxen plodding round and round while a boy slept on the end of their scarcely moving pole.
"Look yonder, Cunnel," he grinned and pointed; "dat boy thinks he's ridin' on a flyin' jinny."
Through the lassitude of tepid hours this wheel turned round; its water jars rose from the river, slow—slow—slow, and emptied themselves into a trough; the stream disappeared under a mud-wall into a garden where the greedy soil drank it up. The boy roused himself and beat the oxen. His jars rose rapidly, and water gurgled as it hastened to feed the palms.
Old, old women, naked to the waist, with skins of wrinkled rubber, trudged to and fro, bearing water jars upon their heads, a never-ending file that began with the dawn of time. A camel sprawled awkwardly and laid its long neck, like a suction pipe, to the river. Other camels knelt, with square iron tanks across their backs, while Egyptian drivers filled them for the soldiers.
Colonel Spottiswoode tried to see everything at once, but did not observe the pairs of keen black eyes that were fastened upon Zack. Zack did not see them, but the eyes saw him, and the lips of desert men muttered to each other.
Behind his black effendi Said shuffled along, craving the world's pardon for living in it; nevertheless his furtive glances conveyed a message of pride to every faithful Mussulman. One very old man, in dingy burnous and turban, reached out and touched the hem of Zack's coat-tail. Zack wheeled, clutched the gold pieces in his pocket, and hurried to the Colonel's heels. The seller of dates understood; the sakia boy understood. But two tall black Nigerines who had come as spies from Sheikh Tabira at Beni Yeb, they understood best of all. With folded arms and lowered eyes they saw their Great Teacher pass. It was only the foreign unbelievers who did not comprehend.
Ignorant of the suppressed attention which Old Reliable attracted, three sauntering white heretics turned in at the Sirdar's latticed gate in a yellow mud-wall, and passed along a feathery avenue of what might have been huge asparagus plants. Arab servants at the gate rose, salaamed, then dropped on their haunches again. Bidding their own servants to remain behind, McDonald beckoned for Zack to follow. Old Reliable tilted his nose high in the air and marched in; Said nodded triumphantly. The two Nigerine spies moved over and stood near at hand to await the pleasure of their Expected One.
Within the Sirdar's garden the African stars blinked down upon a table brilliantly set in sandy spaces of the night. White lamps of Heaven shone through a lacery of palms—street lamps in the City of Jewels, which is the Capital of the Country of Delight. With the calm of eternity they gazed at evanescent candles flickering upon the stranger-people's board. Silver glittered, crystal sparkled, and soft-footed Nubians moved like phantoms across the hush of Eastern rugs. Dinner had almost ended, a dinner of men, eight men who spoke in low-toned monosyllables, men who felt the somber oppressiveness of Africa. The Nubians began placing queer-shaped glasses amongst the candles, glasses filled with parti-colored liqueurs. Cigarette boxes appeared, and matches; guests negligently shoved back their chairs and meditative columns of smoke arose; some curled downward amongst the shadows, and some floated upward through the shine.
Zack Foster, Effendi, dined in lonely grandeur at a table apart, with a Nubian servant of his own. Zack dined diligently. Said slunk outside along the darkened avenue and peeped over the mud wall to see what his master was about. Then he scurried back and reported to other Arabs beyond the gates, "He breaks no bread with the unbeliever. He eats alone. May Allah burn my eyes if I speak not truth."
At his second reconnoissance Said led one of the Nigerines from the street, so that all doubters might be convinced. "Behold!" whispered the Nigerine; "he drinks from the wine-cup, forbidden by the Prophet."
"It is true," Said stolidly maintained, "yet the wine doth turn to milk within his mouth—which proves the Holy One." Every Mussulman knew that Zack's wine was being changed to milk in his throat, but they were kind enough not to tell Zack.
Young McDonald waited for a pause in the conversation, and then suggested, "My dear Colonel Spottiswoode, will you call the black man and let him tell General Durham how he secured three hundred Nigerine tenants for Cameron on Beni Yeb plantation?"
General Durham—Acting Sirdar, blue-eyed, grizzled, ribbed with whale-bone and covered with sun-tanned leather—General Durham smiled "Yes, Colonel Spottiswoode, that was an exploit worthy to be mentioned in the dispatches."
The American planter glanced over his shoulder at Zack. It needed only a glance, for Zack was watching the white folks' table, listening and hoping for the summons: "Zack, come here."
"Yas, suh, yas, suh." Zack wiped his mouth with great care before he came, then bent over the table between Colonel Spottiswoode and that hatchet-faced white man.
"Zack," said the Colonel, "this is the Sirdar—we call him Governor at home. He wants to hear how you put those negroes to work at Beni Yeb."
"You mean dem niggers on Cunnel Cameron's place?" Zack did not even grin, it was too slight an achievement. "Lordee, Cunnel, twarn't nothin' at all, an' not much o' dat. Twarn't like hustlin' for cotton pickers 'mongst dem Vicksburg niggers. I wuz jes' walkin' bout on dat big ole san' bar back o' de house an' met up wid dem niggers. At fus' dey cornduck deyselves mighty discontemptuous, but dat wuz befo' dey knowed reel good who I wuz. Dey talked some kind o' jabber talk what didn't have no heads nor no tails to it. Direc'ly dat white feller what lived wid 'em, he come out an' axed me what wuz I doin' dar. He wuz de onlies' one what knowed how to talk. I 'plied right back dat I wuz jes' walkin' 'bout, twarn't no law 'ginst walkin' 'bout, wuz it? He spoke pow'ful sudden, 'Whar did I come from?' Jes quick as I specify Vicksburg, Miss., dat made him easy in his min'. Den he 'quired what fer I come to deir camp? I wuz fixin' to tell him, but dat ole one-eyed nigger never 'lowed me to 'splain nothin'. He jes put in his mouth. Ev'ybody stop an' listen to what he say; I knowed he must be some kind o' overseer. Him an' dat white feller, dey kep' 'sputin' an 'sputin' up an' down, till dat white feller axed me Vuz I de Great Teacher dey was expectin'?' I tole him I warn't no sech Great Teacher ez all dat, but I could teach some, bein' as I had come a mighty fur ways to teach. Jes' soon as de white man tell dat to de one-eyed nigger, dey talked a mighty heap in deir jabber. Twarn't no sense in nothin' dey said. Den de white feller got so mad he stomped back to his tent an' lef me 'mongst all dem niggers. Dey capered roun' scan'lous, rubbed sand on deir faces, an' butted dey heads 'ginst de groun'. I got right fidgety seein' 'em stick knives in deyselyes. Next mawnin', bein' as dey wuz huntin' for a home, an' dat gen'leman on de plantation needed a lot o' hoe hands, I jes led 'em to him."
Zack's enthusiasm dwindled as he talked, for the Sirdar refused to smile. The experienced Dervish fighter listened rigidly as if Zack's statement were a military report. Zack kept glancing at the Colonel, and Colonel Spottiswoode supposed that the Britisher failed to catch the negro humor. But General Durham did understand, far better than Colonel Spottiswoode, and more clearly than any of his guests, except Lyttleton. Lyttleton, who had fought through the Khalifah campaign—getting his spear thrust and promotion at Omdurman—sat at the far end of the table eyeing his superior officer. To both of these men the phrases "Expected One" and "Great Teacher" were slogans of dread which had lighted many a torch and hurled many a spear in the Sudan. Durham's mustache lowered grimly above a pair of thin lips, and Colonel Spottiswoode felt that Zack's story had gone wrong. So he attempted to help out by adding, "When we left Beni Yeb, old Tabira and his Nigerines crowded to the landing. If we had not already got on board the boat we might have had trouble in bringing Zack away. They waved their hands and shouted that they would follow—Lyttleton, wasn't that what they said?"
Lyttleton only nodded, and Durham nodded too.
The single-minded McDonald thought of nothing except the help he would have in getting labor for their cotton experiment, and spoke up inopportunely: "General, do you agree that he may prove of great service on Wadi Okar?"
"Possibly, sir, possibly; if he can set those Shilluks and Dinkas to work. But what about the Nigerines? What if they should proceed to Wadi Okar?"
McDonald answered promptly: "They won't come; it's a month's journey."
Durham shook his head. "Doesn't matter. Tabira's tribe has spent more than twenty years on the pilgrimage to Mecca. I fancy a few months more will not stop him."
McDonald hadn't considered that; neither had it occurred to Colonel Sportiswoode. But the possibility lurked in the mind of Lyttleton.