Old Reliable in Africa/Chapter 19
THE PROPHET WHO SLIPPED
ZACK FOSTER, Effendi, was not safely hid, and he tarried for nobody to find him. Old Reliable found himself in less time than an hour. General Durham and he American planter were still talking about him when they heard Zack's voice outside the gate, calling, "Whar's de Cunnel?" Helmet in hand, Old Reliable strode between two lines of salaaming servants, wiping his face on a red handkerchief. Said dropped to his haunches at the gate, as if nothing had happened. Arab glances were exchanged between lowered eyes; the date-sellers did not look up from their baskets. Two silent Nigerines, with their backs turned, stood contemplating the river.
General Durham fastened his eyes upon Old Reliable's sweaty black face, which seemed to conceal nothing; but the British had learned that they never saw beneath the skins of these people. Old Reliable burst out in wrath: "Cunnel, dem niggers got me cut off. You tole me to keep side an' side wid you-all, an' I wuz doin' it. But when dem camels come along I jes nacherly looked at 'em a minute, an' de fus thing I knowed dere was sech a crowd I couldn't git nowhar. You-all was gone, an' I hollers to dis nigger, 'Side, which way did de Cunnel go?'—and 'peared like he couldn't understand nothin'. Jes den a big yaller feller come up an' p'inted us de wrong way. Dat crowd kept shovin' an' shovin' till us got wedged in one o' dem crookety alleys an' couldn't go no place."
"Why didn't you come home?"
"Couldn't, Cunnel; whole passel o' dem niggers crowded roun' an' p'inted at me."
"What did they say?" demanded General Durham so abruptly that Zack jerked for breath.
"Lordee, Mister, couldn't nobody tell what dem niggers wuz sayin'. Dey said a-plenty jes jabber, jabber, jabber—all at de same time. I tried to push through 'em an' git back to de big road, but twarn't no use. Dey kep' scrougin' an' crowdin' an' shovin' 'til dey got me furder an' furder from whar de Cunnel was at. 'Peared to me like some of 'em wanted to crowd me plumb down to de fur end o' de street. D'rec'ly one ole man come along in a long blue night shirt an' a big head-hankcher; he step out an' lif up his han'. Den all of 'em shet up whilst he makes 'em a speech—an' all de time he bowed to me mighty nice. He was sholy one polite ole man. Reckin' he was tellin' 'em to git out o' my way an' lemme go home. About dat time another cripple feller—pow'ful dirty—he hobbles up, an' ev'ybody kep' mighty still whilst he throws dis here thing roun' my neck. Den ev'ybody hollered. Tain't nothin' 'cept a bunch o' skeeter bar rings, an' rusty at dat. Huh!" Zack drew something from his pocket and dropped it disgustedly on the table, a tangle of brass rings which might have belonged to a low-class dancing girl. "Dat's de time when dey all commenced to kneel down befo' me, an' butt deir heads aginst de groun'."
"Knelt down and butted their heads against the ground, eh?" repeated General Durham with emphasis.
"Yas, suh, Gov'nor, yas, suh. Dat's de Gawd's troof. Dey sho done it fer a fac', an' blocked de road so nobody couldn't pass. Dat old crippled man, he sot 'em plum crazy."
"Old cripple man, you say? What did he look like?"
"He look mighty curyous. Never had no hands, nor yit no feet—all of 'em cut smack off. But dat nigger sho could scramble mightily on his nubbins."
"El Hadj Nejuma!" Durham exclaimed, then snatched up the tangle of brass which Zack had tossed upon the table. "By the nine Gods, Spottiswoode, look! Look at this! The Seven and Seventy Rings of Badar Khan!"
The Sirdar sat down, trembling; and Colonel Spottiswoode began to catch the infection of his excitement. They leaned over the table, put their heads together, and straightened out the knotted links of brass. It took shape as a necklace, curiously wrought, an interlacing of many-sized rings. Zack shuffled around from one side of the table to the other; neither of the white men looked up. Lyttleton Bey and McDonald hurried in. They had heard of Zack's disappearance, but seeing him standing there so quietly, at once transferred their curiosity to the recovered heirloom. Other officers arrived, some in khaki, some in linens, just as the disquieting news had found them. But a harmless negro in the Sirdar's quarters was far less thrilling than a possible Prophet strewing fire in Omdurman. So they crowded to the Sirdar's table and paid no attention to Old Reliable.
"Huh! Now ain't dat jes like white folks—makin' all dat humbug over some skeeter bar rings? Huh!"
No attention being paid to him, and there being nobody to talk with, Old Reliable straggled off, like a camel that slipped his hobble-string. Down the avenue he swaggered, looking over his shoulder to see if the white folks were going to call him back. Every Arab at the gate rose promptly and salaamed, which tickled Zack into good humor again. So he strolled out smiling, and sat down upon the river bank to watch some Gippy soldiers who were loading donkeys on a barge. Zack loved to see those yellow negroes work, but sniffed in contempt at their uniforms.
He had long ceased to consider General Durham, who was taking counsel with his officers, "Lyttleton, what do you think? Shall we let this negro stay in the Sudan, and take a chance? Or had we better ask Colonel Spottiswoode to send him home?"
If Lyttleton had been a Roman he would have fought as Fabius—cautiously. So he answered, "You know, General, I always advise the safer course—take no chances with these people. This black man seems to get them excited."
"Gentlemen, I beg your pardon," Colonel Spottiswoode arose and spoke most earnestly, "I regret this annoyance. Of course, I cannot understand the Sudan, but I do know that this old negro will never make trouble for anybody except himself—or me. He's forgot all about that necklace, and——"
"What's that?" Every officer wheeled and faced toward the gate. Outside a cry uprose, a wild excited cry from many Arab throats. For a moment Lyttleton and the General looked at each other, sickened with memories of what that cry had often meant. Sergeant Flynn, the red-headed Irishman, came running in. As he passed Moriarity he grinned—"Hell to pay"; then froze his face and saluted the Sirdar.
"What is it, Flynn?"
"That bloomin' naygur, sorr. They're makin' a bally big row over him."
In the first rush, side by side with General Durham, the American planter passed the gate. Not a servant waited on his haunches—all gone. The embankment was thronged with bat-like Arabs darting here and there. From afar off in the native quarters came the patter of bare feet, the flutter of rags, and the muttering of voices. Donkey boys left their beasts, date-sellers forsook their baskets; the sakia had stopped. Everybody crowded along the river bank. Zack was not in sight.
In sturdy bounds Colonel Spottiswoode leaped across the road and forced an opening through the crowd, following the direction of every eye. Arabs ran along the edge, of the water, and shouted, as a boy came swimming ashore with Old Reliable's helmet. The Colonel saw five heads bobbing up and down in the thick red water. One of those heads was Zack's. Four brawny brown men struggled around him, battling with the current. A Gippy soldier threw them a rope from the barge. Four nearly naked Arabs dragged Zack up the slippery bank, dripping, muddy, hatless and enraged. The Colonel grabbed him, "Zack, what the devil are you doing?"
Old Reliable took his helmet from the proud boy and carefully smoothed out its ribbons. "Lordee, Cunnel, I come putty nigh tumblin' in dat water. You oughter seed what a big catfish dat wuz! An' he got away—right yonder."
"What is that? What is that?" Lyttleton questioned.
"How was it, Zack? All this row?"
"Cunnel, I warn't meddlin' wid nobody—warn't payin' 'em no min'. Jes' settin' dar watchin' dat boy tryin' to ketch a fish. D'rec'ly he made a big holler, an' I seen him raslin' wid a fish longer'n what he wuz. Co'se I couldn't set still. I jumped down de bank an' made one grab at dat fish; an' bein' he was so slippery an' de bank so slippery, I nacherly went right on in. Dese niggers ain't got no sense; dey oughter lemme 'lone—I kin swim; but dey hopped in an' hopped in an' hopped in, an' kep' a hoppin' in. Dey grabbed holt o' my arms an' laigs till I couldn't swim nowhar. Dat's what made de humbug. But, Cunnel, dat sho' was a whoppin' big ole catfish."
Lyttleton said nothing, nothing whatever. He watched those Arab faces and sensed the relaxing temper of the mob. Durham stood like an iron man until Lyttleton caught his arm—"Come, General. It's all over. Don't you see they're beginning to smile?"
The mass of Arabs began to melt away, singly, in groups of twos and threes. The two Nigerines looked amazed; they stood apart and whispered. Of the others some shook their heads; some even laughed and showed their teeth.
"Cunnel, I don't ax you to believe me widout you seen it—but dat catfish wuz more longer dan what I is."
Before Colonel Spottiswoode drove him from the river to get some dry clothes, Zack stopped for one last long, regretful look at the bubbly waters where the prize catfish had disappeared.
"General," observed Lyttleton, "there'll be no more trouble. It's all right. Their Prophet has slipped. The Arabs have laughed at him. We'll take Zack up the river with us to-morrow."