Old Reliable in Africa/Chapter 30
THE CRAFT OF SAID WAD DARHO
ZACK slept in the open air outside his tukul. Said pinned the mosquito curtains around his master's cot, ostensibly to keep out bugs, bats, scorpions—myriads of night creatures with wings and stings and fangs and things. But the Dongalawi's private anxiety was to keep the Black Effendi in. Said lay restlessly upon the ground beside him, for Said did not sleep. Not he. Even Zack's resounding snore failed to assure Said that his master might not arise, and make off with the treasure. When day had fairly come, all went well, even as upon many other mornings. Yet the day must be a day of great import; of this the Dongalawi felt certain when the Black Effendi nonchalantly took a jewel from his pocket, pinned it upon his coat, and ambled towards the quarters.
"Come 'long, Side," he ordered. "Us got to git busy; gwine to be two hundred mo' niggers to feed."
The Colonel was sitting upon the porch, and Said observed that Zack halted behind the corner with a sheepish grin, muttering to himself, "I liketer fergot dis badge. Cunnel sho would raise sand." Covertly Said watched him pull off that precious talisman and hide it in his pocket.
It was a shanky, spindling king who came, naked, to Wadi Okar, with knees knocking together for all men to see, and an ashen-plastered countenance. That's what made Zack say what he did about kings in general, and about this king in particular. Disgustedly he eyed them from the Eating House where the Colonel's orders had stationed him. "Jes' look at Mister Bim! Pullin' a long blue night shirt over dat nigger's kinky head. Ain' dat king a sight?"
The king was a sight, for, in addition to a blue robe of honor, Mr. Bim added a red scarf about his waist, and stuck a red tarbush upon his head, which greased the labor transaction to a satisfactory conclusion.
When Lyttleton Bey arose to signify that the palaver was done, he commanded that Mahomet Mansour should escort his guests to the Hot Cat Eating House where Old Reliable waited to spread the banquet.
Zack stood up very grandly to receive the royal retinue which advanced upon his catfish stand.
"Huh!" he remarked. "Dat king sho' is a labor agent! Fotched a whole passel o' niggers."
As the Colonel wasn't scheduled for appearance, Zack couldn't resist the temptation to produce a badge and pin it on the middle of his apron. Thenceforward the gorging of King Quat Kare dwindled into secondary importance, for His Majesty craved the Black Effendi's jewel. Every time Zack approached with additional installments of fried fish, the King stuck out a skinny finger and touched the button. Once he tried to snatch it off, but Zack drew back.
"Hole your hosses, old feller; I'll give dis to you when you goes home. Tell him dat, Side." Said proudly translated, and Tombi, the crippled Shilluk, interpreted to his King.
When Tombi made the King comprehend, His Majesty rose promptly and reached for the jewel, but Zack jerked it away. "No, you don't. Not till you gits in dat boat. I don't aim fer Cunnel to see dis button an' cuss me, jes' fer pastime."
Thereupon Quat Kare led his retinue to the water side and entered his canoe. The royal stomach was full of catfish, and now the royal soul was full of peace, for the Black Effendi leaned over and attached the coveted jewel to his shirt. Shilluks crowded waist deep into the Nile, and went into a powerful 'miration. Quat Kare was paddled away in state, the royal fingers playing with the decoration upon his breast.
At all of this Said opened his eyes very wide, but kept his mouth shut—he knew the secret place of many jewels fit for kings.
The affair might have passed off as an incident had it not set a Grand Idea buzzing in the Dongalawi's head. These Shilluks would give much riches to wear such a royal bauble. He, Said, could supply them with the decoration of kings, reaping profit thereby, and the blessings of Allah. Allah had made these unbelievers deaf and blind, so that true Moslems might flourish upon their folly. Said would be crafty and find a way. First he dispatched Tombi among the Shilluks, extolling the present given to their king—a jewel worth herds of milch cows and goats without number. Meditating upon the fruits of his thrift, Said walked apart, planning a palace in his native village. Verily he would choose more wives than a pasha, and people should salaam before him as to a Great One.
So planning and dreaming, Said was summoned back to earth by the Black Effendi who leaned out of the catfish stand, and shouted, "Whar he? Side! What you doin', peeradin' 'round wid yo' shirt tail flyin'? Crazy folks talk to deyselves dat way. Come here an' wash dese pans. An' tell dese new niggers dat us is fixin' to have plenty hot cat fer 'em to-morrow."
Against this contingency Said had already spoken copiously with Tombi, that he must caution his people to spend no money upon their bellies. They must have piasters—and hold the silence of Allah upon their tongues—for he, Said, could procure for each a jewel like unto the king's. When the people heard that, they chattered mightily, questioning Tombi, and Tombi spread the news. Old Reliable cocked his head to one side and listened to the hullabaloo, wondering why no Shilluk came to buy his fish.
"Look here, Side," he questioned, "dem niggers ain't studyin' 'bout hot cat. What is dat Tombi nigger tellin em?"
"He say much people not work to-day; work to-morrow. Buy great plenty fishes."
"All right den; you be sho to ketch plenty in de mornin'."
Having made a successful function of his free lunch to the king, Zack now strolled towards the white folks' quarters for approbation, with Said dogging his heels.
Deadly fear clutched at the Dongalawi's throat, and he planned with cunning. Discretion forbade him to steal and sell the jewels one by one, for the Shilluks would wear them, and the Black Effendi must discover. No, Said would gather the people, sell all at once, and vanish. The desert would shelter him. So that this happy fate might come to pass, Said admitted Tombi and Odok—grudgingly and partially—into his confidence, on the promise of a jewel to each. They circulated a whisper amongst the villages: "Be cautious, be silent. Meet under the great mimosa tree, where the drum beats at Hillet Debaa, on the first night of the Moon of Muharrem. Jewels such as the Great White Prince gives only to kings, will be sold at the price of a milch cow, at the price of four goats, at the price of twenty piasters."
The progressive Said offered a cut rate if they paid in moneys so as to catch the cash from the laborers.
Business began to pick up in Wadi Okar. Zack loved to follow the white folks into the field, just for the fun of seeing the headman make two hundred negroes hustle. "Lordee, Mister Bim, ain't I been tellin' you dat's de onlies' way to git work out of a nigger? You hafter bat 'em over de head."
According to Zack the Colonel had an easy job. All the work that the Colonel had to do was to stretch his garden line in straight rows of five feet apart, then tell Mahomet Mansour to tell Tombi to tell the head man to tell the negroes to build the dirt up to those lines, which caused plenty of argufying, and Zack loved to listen. The dirt got built, the seed got planted, and the growing cotton got hoed out. Every morning when McDonald found the negroes at work again, he went tiptoeing about with a "did-you-see-it-too" expression.
Two hundred laborers were paid every night, but the Hot Cat failed to gather in their shekels. A hitch had developed somewhere, the sparker wouldn't spark, the starter wouldn't start. Some days the catfish enterprise barely earned its grease, while hungry negroes clung, tight-fistedly, to their piasters. Vainly did Zack put on his white cap and ring the bell. "Hot cat's fine to-day. Step up, niggers. Tell 'em dat, Side."
No such invitation reached the Shilluks through Said or Tombi. To the contrary Tombi pleaded with his people, only six days more until each should possess a jewel. They shuffled their irresolute feet, and with ravenous eyes devoured his crisp brown fish. But nobody bought.
"What ails you niggers?" Zack burst out. "Ef you don't aim to buy dis catfish, I'm gwine to shet up shop. Tell 'em dat, Side."
This message went and returned in brilliant flashes. Thus answered Said: "The Effendi is wise. No people buy fish. Shut up the bazaar. It is well."
"All right, Side, I sho' ain't gwine to beg no nigger what walks de earth." With that he took a dishpan of succulent fish and tossed it into the Nile. The Shilluks gasped, and the smile that warmed Said's vitals showed not upon his lips.
Said worked feverishly through the days, and watched sleeplessly through the nights; whetting his knife so that in due time he might cut open the trunk. Brooding in the starlight, his ideas expanded. He commissioned Odok to spy upon the Black Effendi, while Said himself journeyed by night to nearby villages, creeping back at dawn. Impatient Shilluks were already beginning to assemble, leading many milch cows and goats, and camped beneath the mimosa tree. Stress of anticipation caused the Dongalawi to grow thinner. His eyes glittered. His long, claw-like fingers twitched more nervously. Within four nights the Moon of Muharrem would arise; Said must set out at once for the main village of the Shilluks, where he would cajole many a customer, as all had seen the jewel of their king.
When Zack arose next morning, Said's cadaverous face attracted his attention:
"Side, you got a fever. Come 'long wid me, an' git some medicine." Said begged off from the white man's physic, and implored three days' leave of absence instead, to visit his uncle.
"Huh!" said Zack. "I never knowed you had kinfolks way up here."
To carry out his apparent purpose, and in view of all men, Said ostentatiously crossed the river, although he had to double back and recross far below. He went with much misgivings, for no man's affair can prosper in his absence.