Old Reliable in Africa/Chapter 29
THE TINKLING TREASURE
THE Hot Cat Eating House had lapsed into the universal indolence, and Zack had to wait until his customers got hungry again.
The stars hung low above Wadi Okar, nearer than lightning bugs caught under Zack's mosquito curtain. The Nile murmured in its sleep, a shimmering, upturned duplicate of the dazzling heavens. Between the river and the squatty brick house where the white folks slept stood clumps of dom palms casting their dense black shadows, like ink blots upon a sheet of silver paper. From the village of Hillet Debaa—Hyena Town—across half a mile of trembling grasses, came the thump, thump, thump of a Shilluk drum. The barbaric monotone pulsed into the windows of the white man's quarters, eddied around to the rear, and dinned upon the ears of Said with insistent invitation. The scrawny brown man sat upon the ground with his back against a straw hut, listening to the voice of the drum. Said knew where naked black figures crouched around the drum, beneath the great mimosa tree! His own savage blood responded to the throb, throb, throb of that savage heart of Africa beating afar off in the night. Thereupon Said arose, as the languid leopard rises, his striped robe swished against his legs. For a while he stood motionless, with dilated nostrils, then sank cautiously to the ground again. The back door had opened, not the door which Said was watching, out of which his master usually shouted, "Whar he?" but another door, a dark door. It opened warily without a sound; the room showed black behind it, without a glimmer. Out of this blackness stole the Black Effendi, with the soft foot of a cat, closed the door noiselessly behind him, then stopped to listen in the gloom beneath the eaves. The subtle instinct of Said felt much more than he really saw; he scented concealment, intrigue, something wrong. That's why Said vanished within the tukul, and peered out with glittering eyes. From the silence of the eaves he heard a thrilling sound, the jingle of metal; for Zack had stumbled as he stepped into the star light. Old Reliable traveled in his shirt sleeves; bareheaded, and carried a package under his arm. It was this package which riveted the very soul of Said, a square box nearly the size of a shirt-box and quite heavy. So the Dongalawi stiffened like a pointer dog when Zack sneaked from Colonel Spottiswoode's bedroom with a box which clinked, and whispered of the metal that must be in it. Four black apparitions stalked past—natives, naked and silent—shadows coming out of the shadows, and merging into the shadows again. Zack took no chances; he lay low until the Shilluks were gone, then ventured forth again. A door creaked behind him, and Zack dived back into his hiding place. This time it was Colonel Spottiswoode's door that opened; a glare of light hurled the White Effendi's figure across the level spaces. Colonel Spottiswoode stood in the door way and shouted, "Zack! Oh, Zack!"
Then Said felt sure of the Black Effendi's concealments, for old Zack held his breath and did not answer. Never before had Said known the Black Effendi to act in such wise. Verily, it was a momentous intrigue. The Colonel, having failed to get an answer, turned back into his room and Old Reliable moved stealthily away. Said dropped flat to the ground, and began wriggling like a snake which was shedding its skin—wriggling out of his telltale robe and turban. Twenty paces beyond Zack rounded a corner of the house, then started at a quicker gait toward the river. He chose the way of the darkness, and avoided the path of the shine. To follow him Said must pass that blaze of light which streamed through the door. Naked and brown, Said leaped across it, like the flitting of a bat, and darkness swallowed him. Old Reliable hurried on, intent upon his affair, while Said slunk behind, close enough to hear him mumble, as a man of stricken conscience mutters in his sleep. Once the Black Effendi jostled against a palm, and again Said caught the pleasant jingle of metal, a clink that put his teeth on edge and set every nerve to quivering.
"He goeth to secrete his treasure——" Said almost spoke the words aloud, then looked over his shoulder, lest some eavesdropper might hear. Had not the Black Effendi amassed great treasure in this traffic of the fishes, for which he, Said, cast nets amongst the crocodiles? Said had almost gone mad coveting that flow of money which poured into the Black Effendi's hands, until his pockets bulged with piasters. True, the money flowed not so prodigally whilst the negroes had hippo flesh to feed upon. Shilluks and Dinkas lay beside those carcasses, like gorged dogs, and went not to the fields at all. Even after the hippo meat had long been devoured, the catfish customers came back slowly, not more than ten a day. Said knew these things for a certainty, having eyes to see and wit to remember. As he trailed the Black Effendi and the clink of the treasure, Said considered; his head went whirling, yet his nimble feet made no sound upon the sands.
Old Reliable passed into darkness beneath the palms, took a long breath and a long backward look at the quarters. He had circled around from the rear, and could now see the front windows where lights came out, where Mr. Bim and the big-faced Mr. Lyttleton were snickering behind the Colonel's back. For of late the Colonel had been in a most unpleasant temper at the way things were going, a thought which Zack dismissed and smiled.
The loafers' bench at the Hot Cat offered an undeclinable invitation to sit down, and Zack accepted it—a solitary black figure in that banquet hall deserted.
"Huh!" he complained. "Dis sho is one lonesome place, wid all dem niggers gone over yonder whar dat drum's a beatin' at." Carefully Zack set down his precious box upon the bench beside him, and began fumbling with the lid. Said crawled closer, until he could hear his master say:
"I ain't gwine to do it—ain't gwine to do it."
When Zack lifted the lid of the box, and thrust in his hand, Said leaned forward and gasped, his fingers working like a strangler's. It was too dark to see, but Said could hear, and feel, and tremble, while the Black Effendi kept digging into his treasure, letting it drip through his fingers like sparkling drops that patter into a pool. Suddenly Zack jumped up and let fall a handful, as the Colonel came out on the porch and shouted, "Zack! Where are you? Come here." Zack looked straight towards him but never opened his mouth. Yet, when Colonel Spottiswoode shouted again, the Black Effendi hesitated, bent over his box and nervously jammed down the lid. In his excitement he made a miscue, and spilled part of the contents.
"Dar now!" Down he went, groping on his knees. Said groveled in a gully while Zack pawed around and recovered the treasure. "I speck dat's about all," he muttered, then rose and proceeded down the sloping bank, almost to the water's edge.
"Fool!" hissed the Dongalawi. "He seeks to hide his treasure in water." Said moved nearer, while the beat, beat, beat of that jungle drum almost nerved the frenzied Dongalawi to spring upon his master's back. Then Old Reliable stopped; he had no notion of venturing too close to that river, but only maneuvered to get under cover of the bank, so that nobody could see him from the big house. Said slunk along behind, like a panther that flattens herself against the ground, as the Black Effendi picked his steps, half-way between the bottom and top, until he gained the shadow of some other palms. There he climbed to the crest of the bank, and peered over. Although having the whole world to himself, Zack remained discreet, and went shuffling off beneath the acacias. After him dodged Said from tree to tree, yet puzzled because the Black Effendi must have changed his mind, and was now headed for his own tukul immediately behind the brick quarters. This tukul was a small, round affair, flimsily built of straw, and thatched with elephant grass, like a cone. The opening stood only shoulder high, so Zack ducked in. Said halted and listened from without; he might as well have been at his master's elbow, the walls being so thin that he heard all—the rasping of a key, the slamming of a trunk lid, and the click of a lock—after which Zack hurried out, empty-handed, made a wide detour of the quarters and sauntered up to the front porch. He had scarcely gone before Said was already squatting in the tukul, beating his fist against the trunk which held the Black Effendi's treasure. He clawed at the lid, then sat back upon his haunches and meditated—being a circumspect person. Then Said suddenly thought of something, and darted out of the hut in an instant, winging his flight to the same bench whereat the Black Effendi had spilled a portion of the treasure. Naked to the waist, he fell upon the ground and searched. Then he cried aloud, a sharp point—like a needle—had pierced his breast. Said leaped to his feet; something fell upon the bench with a tingle. Greedily the Dongalawi snatched it up; it was no coin, not gold, nor yet a piaster. He could not guess what manner of treasure he had found. Clutching his riches, the brown man sped away, far from incrimination, and stopped in a starlit place to examine. Verily Said had found a jewel, a talisman bearing the face of a king, and cabalistic words in an unknown tongue. The Dongalawi's eyes blazed with avarice and delight. Here was wealth far beyond piasters, wealth of jewels and of gems. Said turned it over in his trembling palm. Upon the back there was a pin to fasten it to a robe of honor, such as great ones wear.
When Zack dumped the Spottiswoode campaign badges into his trunk he felt secure as a suck-egg dog which has buried the shells. No matter if the Colonel had ordered him to throw them away, Zack wasn't going to chuck a box full of brand new shiny badges into the river—no sir, he'd rather risk another cussing. The Colonel might just as well have ordered Zack to drown somebody's baby, or to kick a widow woman's dog into the creek.
Having negotiated a compromise, Zack approached the quarters with keen eye and careless saunter. The flurry had blown over; there would be no storm. Colonel Spottiswoode sat facing the door, with a book in his lap, while McDonald and Lyttleton leaned over the table, preparing their monthly report.
As Zack eased himself through the doorway without pomp or parade, the Colonel looked up, "Zack, did you chuck those infernal buttons into the river?"
"Yas suh, yas suh." Lyttleton and McDonald glanced at Zack, smiling silently; each of them wore a Spottiswoode badge pinned to his dinner jacket. That's what made Zack grin. Both the Britishers snickered, and Colonel Spottiswoode flushed. "Haven't you fellows got tired of laughing?"
Lyttleton looked very serious. "That's McDonald laughing. He's not clever, you know—just a wild ass of a bachelor."
The Colonel laid down his book. "Gentlemen," he said. "I might as well get done with it and explain. Some misguided friends of mine were going to elect me Governor, in a whirl—and, they didn't. Had to call it off. I couldn't go around begging people for votes, and couldn't have been elected anyhow. My friends ordered about four tons of those fool buttons. I made Zack throw bushels of them into the Mississippi River. He says he mistook that last box for a box of number ten shells, and packed it in my chest Are you satisfied with the story? All gone, are they, Zack?"
"Yas suh, Cunnel, you ain't never gwine to see 'em no mo'."
"Except these two, worn by your most admiring constituents." McDonald and Lyttleton bowed low.
Then the Colonel got into a good humor and chuckled. "Zack, did I cuss very strong?"
"Yas suh, Cunnel; when you fust opened up dat box o' buttons, an' I heard what you say, I 'lowed to myself, "Dar now! Cunnel's done gone Democratic agin'."
At a jovial suggestion from McDonald that it was night-cap time Zack vanished into the pantry, and the stirring of ingredients commenced. When Zack returned with brandy and sodas, the white folks were amicably discussing a labor contract to be consummated on the following morning with the King of the Shilluks. McDonald's voice sounded as if he were defending himself. "I hated to do it, 'pon my word. It's sure to raise a deuce of a row amongst our stay-at-home directors."
"Why so?" The Colonel looked inquiringly at Lyttleton, who lighted another cigarette, and half-apologized.
"My dear Colonel, our directors are keen on employing voluntary labor, paying good wages, teaching the natives—all that sort of stuff. They can't see how it works out—or won't work out. When we go back home they'll put us through the shorter catechism."
"What's wrong about our scheme?" demanded the Colonel.
"Well, it's this contract. We agree to pay the king for two hundred laborers, and his head-man makes them work. If the head-man straps a fellow, it's by the king's orders, not ours. But we pay each man for his own labor. The point is, however, that each man doesn't want to work—it's not voluntary labor, but——"
"But me no buts——" McDonald whacked his fist upon the table. "We've worried along four months and haven't done two days' work. Tried everything, paid 'em, jollied 'em, fed 'em, begged 'em, pleaded with 'em—no use. Think of the waste; think of the mill-workers back in England who may become dependent on the cotton which we ought to raise. Look at Feilden, just appointed Governor of Wau to succeed Sinclair who died three weeks ago. Harley pegged out six months ahead of Sinclair; eight governors of Wau died in one-two-three order. 'Feilden, old chap,' says I, 'don't go up and try to run that show at Wau.' He knew exactly what I meant, but he only said, 'The Empire must be built.' With such men as Feilden in the Sudan I want to get results, like the rest of them. Anyhow, the Shilluk King is coming to-morrow to sign the contract."
Lyttleton Bey smoked on in silence and Colonel Spottiswoode made no remarks.
"Huh!" Zack chuckled to himself. "Now dey is gwine to have 'em a time wid de labor agent. Dat labor agent's got to be mighty spry to make dese niggers work."