Old Reliable in Africa/Chapter 18
THE TRAGEDIES OF AFRICA
FOR some little while after Old Reliable had told his disquieting story of the Sheikh Tabira, General Durham and his guests sat talking, two and two, in undertones. Presently the general turned to a scar-faced man at his left—the Count di Favara, adventurer, ex-officer of the Foreign Legion in Algiers, refugee from the Italian disaster in Abyssinia, and who had served with the British at Majuba Hill.
"Favara," asked the General, "you tried some Chinese labor in the Niger basin, at—I forget the name of the place?"
Di Favara—darker than an Arab, with black beard trimmed to a point, and a marvelous command of many languages—di Favara leaned forward, smiling: "My dear Sirdar, the place is of no consequence."
Favara had a keen dramatic instinct which focused all attention upon himself as he began, "We were trying to build a railroad around a certain waterfall—bare rock, much blasting. White men shriveled under the heat, and natives ran away from the work. So we contracted with the Chinese Six Companies for three thousand coolies. Work? They were very devils for work! We needed devils; we were moving red hot stones in hell. Chinamen died like flies; sun-stroke, fever, reptiles and insects. We had agreed to ship every Chinese body home for burial. They did their own embalming, stowed the bodies in coffins, and we stacked the coffins on the river bank, where a boat came twice a week. More Chinamen died; others worked madly, ahead of death. We were succeeding, we were building; death did not matter—until three Chinamen went fishing. Never before had any coolie taken a holiday. Two miles below our landing place a little river tumbled into the big one. There amongst the rocks they found the mangled bodies of their friends—some of their friends. As for the others—well, the crocodiles were said to be very, very fat. Those three coolies rushed back to camp and spread the news. Every coolie stopped. That work is stopped to this day. Nobody will ever complete it. They held a meeting. We tried to pacify them. The frenzied demons would listen to nothing. At daylight three thousand yellow men, without food, guides, or arms, marched out of camp, headed toward the sunrise. That mob started from middle Africa and went shouting on their way to China."
Di Favara hushed; it was Colonel Spottiswoode who inquired, "What became of them?"
The Italian shrugged his shoulders: "Chi lo sa? That was nine years ago. Last summer I passed through Zanzibar. In the Sultan's gardens I saw a lone Chinese slave, that his traders had captured in a razzia, while sacking the village of a savage tribe. The last survivor of the three thousand. Madonna mia! What a tale that man could tell!"
The Italian lighted another cigarette and let the imagination of his hearers run riot with those Chinese struggling in the jungle.
Colonel Spottiswoode stared at Favara, and nobody moved until Durham's even voice asked another question: "Yes, I heard of that, but never believed it to be true. Did you know a man named Vinizzi—Balthazar Vinizzi?"
Favara made a queer gesture of Latin assent: "Yes, oh, yes. Vinizzi was everywhere; a bold man, Balthazar, but not good, not good." Even in Favara's code there were things which men should not do. Vinizzi had left nothing undone.
The Sirdar stirred the crushed ice in his crème de menthe. "Pardon my curiosity about Vinizzi. But did you ever hear that he had a necklace of interlaced rings for which our Government has been searching, an Indian heirloom called the 'Tangle of Badar Khan'—or 'the Seven and Seventy Rings'?" Durham was no diplomat. His blunt question startled the suave Italian. Favara glanced up quickly, then down again. Then he leaned both elbows on the table and replied: "Ebbene! I will tell you. Why not? Vinizzi had that necklace while we were together in the Congo. It was of no value, but perilous to keep. Vinizzi delighted to do dangerous things."
Colonel Spottiswoode glanced from one man to the other with intense curiosity, which General Durham gratified: "We never learned the history of this heirloom. The hill people of India said it had been a Mahometan emblem captured centuries ago by Badar Khan. It descended in the family of a certain prince from whom it was looted during our troubles. When peace came this prince made a special stipulation that we should return this trinket. That was easy. An Englishman had the curio in Algiers. When we sent for it, the Englishman had disappeared. People whispered he was murdered. Others said no, that the Englishman had journeyed south into the Kabyle country. Later we heard that the Tangle of Badar Khan was in possession of a man named Balthazar Vinizzi in the Belgian Congo. Favara, what became of Vinizzi?"
This was the second awkward question that General Durham had asked. For a moment the Italian held his tongue, then laughed airily: "Why not, amongst friends? That night is three years gone. Vinizzi is dead. I think it was Yambio who killed him. Poor Balthazar—but I shall tell you."
Durham the unimaginative sat upright in his chair; everybody else leaned forward as the Italian began: "Vinizzi commanded the post; I served under him. He had a sergeant named Yambio. Nobody knew where Yambio came from; it might have been unpleasant to inquire—that is the way of the Congo. But imagine Yambio, the color of old ivory, the length of my arm taller than I, half robed, half bare. Yambio might have been a prince—or perhaps a pirate, or a giant fighting his Carthaginian galley against the Romans. We found him a marvel in controlling the blacks; he spoke their language, and was a born soldier. One day Yambio asked permission to bring his favorite wife to the post—a young girl from the Barcine desert. Vinizzi granted the unfortunate permission. Early one morning the young wife came, a mere child, smiling, very happy and beautiful. She was called Sitt il Milah, the Lady of the Moon. As she dismounted from a camel, Vinizzi and two of his boon companions caught one glimpse of her. Which was enough. Men must be amused in the Congo. At once he ordered me to take Yambio with a detachment and proceed to the frontier, two days' journey. Yambio made no protest; Allah had willed it so. He went with me, but kept very silent. Four days later we returned. His girl wife was not in Yambio's hut. Yambio heard the grewsome story, how she had been carried, screaming, to the officers' quarters. His blacks told him all, in their own tongue. Yambio rushed straight to headquarters. There they sat, Vinizzi and his cronies, around a table, reckless with wine. Yambio demanded his wife. Vinizzi pointed to an inner room—'She is there,' he said. That was all. She was there, lying on the floor, not yet dead, but worse than dead. Yambio gathered the limp creature in his arms and strode out to the jungle. She died that night—sometimes God may be merciful, even in Africa. Yambio buried her, and went back to Vinizzi. Blood of Christ! How he looked, blocking that door with arms folded, glaring at those men who sneered at him. Yambio spoke, very, very slowly: 'Allah is just, and Allah sees the sorrow you have put upon his servant.' That is all he said; I remember every syllable. He went about his duties and the post was quiet. One sultry night two weeks afterwards, I was awakened by a hand that closed my mouth—'Be still,' a voice whispered, 'you shall meet no harm.' It was Yambio himself who bound and gagged me, then set a guard upon me in the forest I heard no shots; there were none. The knife is more deadly, and the knife is silent. I heard a scream, just one, short, sharp—the shriek of poor Balthazar. It was not like Balthazar to cry aloud. I have always wondered what Yambio could have done to extort such a scream. Then fire came, bursting from every tukul and the quarters. At morn there was no army post, only the ashes of a place accurst. Yambio conducted me to the seacoast. Day by day, week by week, we journeyed in silence, and reached the shark-infested waters of the Bight of Benin. A Dutch vessel lay at anchor. In a small boat we passed the sharks, and he lifted me to the vessel's deck. There he said farewell, kissing his own hand after the fashion of his people. And then—then—for one instant Yambio stood erect, balancing himself upon the rail, and plunged headlong into the sea. A flurry of white, the rush of a shark's fin, a dash of red blood—e fineto!"
A stark white moon had sunk behind the house and only the stars looked down, stars that were used to looking down upon tragedies in Africa. Silence, silence except for that maddening click—click—click of the Nile wheels. Colonel Spottiswoode knew that oxen were trudging round and round, that water flowed, that the boy slept, that all things went on just the same. He glanced at the Italian and shivered. But to those who had served long in the Sudan, uncompromising necessities had blunted the edge of their imaginations. So General Durham pursued his practical idea, and inquired, "Favara, do you know what became of the Tangle?"
For answer Favara spread his palms with an almost imperceptible gesture of ignorance. "No, nor what became of anything." Then Favara nodded to the Nubian waiter, who refilled his brandy glass.
Durham persisted. "I have a reason. This necklace has lately been heard of in Omdurman; a crippled beggar is said to have it, a holy man called El Hadj Nejuma."
To which Lyttleton added quickly: "That's the beggar whose hands and feet were cut off by the Khalifah? I've seen him."
"He should be easy to find," Colonel Spottiswoode suggested. "Couldn't you send over and get it? Just across the river."
"My dear Colonel Spottiswoode," Durham smiled, "we might as well send across the Milky Way. No Mahometan would tell us of it. There's no human way to locate that necklace."
"Perhaps it may turn up," the Colonel said. "I should like to hear more about it."
"Turn up? Oh, yes, it may turn up—around the neck of a Mahdi, with ten thousand Dervishes flashing their spears beside him. That's what these sacred relics mean. You are planning to visit Omdurman to-morrow? Look at the people, look at the place, smell it—but more than that, feel it, feel the sullen mystery of its heat—its mad people—and then tell me whether you would care to see them roused."
The next afternoon Colonel Spottiswoode and McDonald, with Zack and Said, climbed aboard the little toy tram-car which clatters to the ferry, and crossed into Omdurman, that mud-and-dung city to which the Khalifah enjoined a pilgrimage, forbidding the age-old pilgrimage to Mecca. It was a city of pillage and massacre and mysterious death. In narrow alleys the artisans toiled; across its scorching spaces the fluttering robes moved swiftly. It was a holy city of most unholy odors and stagnant wells; a labyrinth where anything might happen; a city of ominous name, even for Africa.
Before dusk fell again upon Khartum, the American had returned and rushed to General Durham's headquarters. He passed through the garden where they had dined the previous night; in daylight it seemed dingy and glary. The general sat inside at his desk.
"General, I beg pardon for interrupting you, but have you seen my negro, old man Zack, who was here last night?"
"No, what's the matter? Is he gone?"
"He's missing, and we can't find him."
"Can't find him? Where did you see him last?"
"In Omdurman. A swarm of Arabs crowded round him, and we got separated. I thought he'd come back to the hotel, or here."
The British general sprang up, clapped his hands, and shouted, "Wahid!" An Egyptian orderly appeared, and received sharp orders in Arabic. Then Durham sent for an Irish sergeant, remarking to Colonel Spottiswoode, "If anything goes wrong we can't depend upon these Mahometans, especially where it touches their religion." So he dispatched Sergeant Flynn to find the negro.
Having sent his men to search the byways of two cities, General Durham turned to Colonel Spottiswoode and demanded, "How did it happen? Give details."
The American could not comprehend why such a muss should be stirred about a lost negro. "We were passing through an alley where men squatted on the ground making camel-saddles, with frames like saw-bucks. Zack and I watched them for awhile, then started to the corner of a wide roadway and saw a train of camels ridden by naked negroes—great big fellows. Zack must have taken it for a circus parade, and lagged behind to look."
"Suspicious!" remarked the general curtly.
"Oh, no, our negroes always do that on circus day. McDonald and I both noticed that a crowd of Arabs began to gather around us, and Zack was in the thick of it. Not one of them spoke a word that I could hear, but they all seemed to be watching Zack. I took my eyes off him for a moment, and when I glanced back again his helmet had disappeared; and the servant Said was also missing. McDonald and I tried to find out which way he had gone; a very respectable-looking Arab directed us to a crooked alley. We followed that alley, and got lost."
"He sent you wrong, intentionally."
"Yes, I think he deliberately misled us. Anyhow, the negro could not be found. We spent two hours searching for him, and then supposed he had come back here. His servant was with him, and he couldn't get lost."
"He's not lost. Nobody gets lost here—accidentally. Answer me, Colonel Spottiswoode," the Sirdar's voice grew harsh; "what do you know about your black? Where did he come from?"
"Where did he come from? He's just a common ordinary nigger—came from nowhere in particular."
"Mahometan, of course."
"No. He's a Baptist—or Methodist maybe."
"You don't mean to say he's a Christian?"
"Not enough Christian to hurt."
"Where did you get him?"
"Just picked him up."
"At home, rambling around. He's a faithful servant and knows my ways—that's why I brought him along."
"How is it he has his own servant—and——"
In spite of General Durham's seriousness the American could not restrain a laugh. "Zack has a servant, yes; I hired Said to keep Zack out of trouble."
"To keep him out of trouble?"
"Yes; he's such a fool that I was afraid he might get hurt."
Durham paced up and down the room, unconvinced. "Now he's getting us into trouble. I don't like that affair at Beni Yeb. There's a madness in this Sudan sun that addles the brains of men. Two of Tabira's Nigerines have followed him to Khartum. Do you know what that means? I do. No doubt they were in the crowd at Omdurman, spreading news amongst the people. Suppose your negro should take it into his head to start a row? There'll be plenty of fanatics to hail him as a prophet."
Colonel Spottiswoode laughed outright, then stopped short: "General Durham, you don't seem to understand negroes."
"And you don't understand Mahometans."
"This old negro is harmless as a baby."
"So was Mahomet Achmet. Yet he raised a war and built a military power which killed eight millions of people."
"Raised a war? Zack never could raise any thing but cotton—and mighty little of that."
"We will see, we will see. Unless he has been safely hid, my men should find him within an hour."