Old Reliable in Africa/Chapter 32
SEVERAL weeks dragged by, as weeks must drag when one lies in jail listening for the key of liberation. Old Reliable got powerful sick of Afriky Landin', and paid attention to nothing, except when the Colonel talked of finishing his work and going home. That's when Zack heartened up and took notice. Said rarely sat up at all, and never took heed. Heed was for the Great Ones, Said himself being chastened and dispirited. Business at the catfish stand proceeded listlessly—as things go on in Africa—yesterday, to-day, and to-morrow merging in its tepid monotone.
A level sun at morning sent the shadow of the Hot Cat Eating House wriggling across the Nile; Said squatted on the ground, patiently mending his nets, while Old Reliable, bent over him: "Side, us is startin' fer home to-morrer; an* you gits de eatin' house business—sho' nuff, no foolin' dis time."
"May Allah grant thee good reward." Said uttered the words perfunctorily, squinted upwards, and a momentary triumph lighted his avaricious eyes. Then they darkened distrustfully and hardened into their now habitual scowl. Hope deferred had soured on the Dongalawi's soul. Every day his Black Effendi had promised, "I'm gwine to quit dis business an' give it to you. Tain't no sense in pilin' up money continual, an' pilin' it up." Every day Said had dreamed his elusive dream of riches, until he no longer believed. Then Said made a plan of his own, simple and effective, to be carried out with a certain broad-bladed Shilluk spear which he had secreted in the grass. Said would plunge that spear into the Black Effendi's back while he strolled by night, as was his custom, among the Shilluk huts. Oh, the hate that Said could put behind a spear thrust! Said would take from the Effendi's pockets that treasure in gold which jingled there, and taunted him to madness. These despised Ingleezi, with brains of sheep, would say that the Black Effendi was killed about a woman. So they had said when they found the Egyptian surgeon, slain at Hillet Debaa. Had not Said heard these same Ingleezi laugh as they warned the Black Effendi of trouble which would surely come, if he ceased not wandering where Shilluk women were? Other strangers had perished thus, and no man ever knew. Then Said, the true believer, would tread the paths of ease, and become a Great One in his village. "Bism'illah!" muttered the pious Dongalawi, and spat upon the ground.
Meanwhile Zack felt so jubilant over the prospect of getting back to Vicksburg, that he didn't bother his head about the grumbling of a skinny-legged brown man in a chop-tailed nightshirt. "Huh! Side, you got a grouch," so Zack betook himself to lighter-hearted company.
A hundred yards up the river bank Colonel Spottiswoode and the two British officers observed the loading of a barge which was to transport the Americans with their baggage as far as Khartum. Zack rambled in that direction to help the white folks stand around and do nothing.
Four shanky Shilluks wrestled awkwardly with a bale of cotton, which would not roll straight down the bank, nor across the stage plank of the barge. Zack eyed them with top-loftical disgust and proceeded to give orders, "Here, you sloo-foot nigger! Cut yo' end 'roun'. Grab holt! Dar now!" The bale flopped over, jerked a naked black into the river, and went splashing in behind him. Twenty Shilluks swarmed after it and brought out the cotton.
"We can't afford to lose that bale," laughed McDonald; "that is bale number one of the Wadi Okar crop."
"No, siree," added Colonel Spottiswoode; "that cotton is worth thirty-two cents in Alexandria, and I figure it cost us about thirty-two dollars a pound to produce."
"Doesn't matter, sir, doesn't matter—it can be produced. That's all we desire to know."
Lyttleton, the experienced Dervish fighter, had noticed something else and he smiled grimly, "Did you observe how briskly those Shilluks moved? They have just learned how their king punished the native who tried to burn our gin."
"What was that?"
"I thought McDonald had told you. Within ten minutes after our escort carried him before the king, he was a dead Shilluk. Old Quat Kare wants to keep the presents that he gets out of this job. Poor devil! We ought to have dealt with him ourselves."
"Well," remarked the Colonel; "if that gin had burned, I should have gone home on this boat."
Old Reliable poked his startled face around the Colonel's elbow: "What dat you say, Cunnel? Ain't us gwine home on dis boat?"
"No. We must stay until the next lot of cotton can be ginned up. I brought the seed from home, and I want to see how it turns out."
"How long is dat gwine to take, Cunnel?" Zack's tongue felt dry.
"Not more than a week; but it throws us over until the next boat."
"When do de next boat pull out?"
"Two or three weeks."
"Nearer two or three months, perhaps," Lyttleton suggested cheeringly.
Old Reliable's white eyes rolled beseechingly from one man to the other. "White folks, y'all ain't prankin' wid me, is you?" But he saw no banter about the Colonel's gloomy face.
"Den us won't gwine git home for Christmas?"
Colonel Spottiswoode gazed down the river, Khartum way; the homesickness that was in his heart softened his eyes and twitched at his lips. "No, Zack," he answered, "we can't get home for Christmas."
Zack withered, and collapsed like a circus tent when the center pole comes down. Then he burst out petulantly, "I wisht dat feller what seen de gin house ketch fire—I wisht he had a been at home sick in bed, 'stead o' ramblin' roun'. Dat's all I wishes."
Lyttleton and McDonald glanced at each other, but the Colonel whispered:
"Don't pay any attention to Zack; he's just like a disappointed child."
And the old negro did look like a disappointed child as he drifted away, all by himself, away from everybody, crossed the stage plank and climbed to the upper deck of the barge. There he leaned limply against a post, with eyes fixed upon the far southern stretches of the Nile, while his lips moved. "I got to git Cunnel away from here. Ef dis boat goes down dat river widout me, I'll jes' nacherly curl up an' die. Cunnel's a heap mo' lonesomer dan what I is, an' taint gwine to take much to git him started."
Along the river's edge Zack saw a spattered creature toiling up the bank. It was Said, bending beneath his heavy morning catch. Fish possessed an irresistible attraction for Zack. He left the white men to their argument about Egyptian staples, and trudged morosely towards the catfish stand. From a distance nobody would have recognized the humble Said, who had come cringing and wheedling to Wadi Okar, for the Dongalawi now moved with a springy step and air of jubilation. The Black Effendi was really going to-morrow, and the riches of the catfish stand would all be his. It was befitting an independent merchant like Said to hold his head erect, and look with eyes of scorn upon meaner beings. Only one more day, and the piasters which now poured into the Black Effendi's pocket would fall like ripe dates into Said's own hands. At thought of which Said's eyes sparkled when he laid out his fish, and began preparing them for the pan. Yet, even then, Said felt a twinge of dread as Old Reliable approached with hanging head and sluggish step. Zack scarcely ooked at the fish before he blurted out: "Side, us ain't gwine away."
Said dropped his knife, dropped his fish, and dropped his jaw—"Effendi goes not?"
"No, us gwine to stay"—in a tone of forever and forever, which shattered the dreams that Said had dreamed, and the castles that Said had builded. For one stupid staring instant the Dongalawi squatted perfectly still; then he sprang to his feet, uplifted his arms, beat his breast, and called down imprecations of Allah upon the calamity which had befallen. Then Said remembered, and went back to cleaning his fish, with the sodden submission of Egypt's fellaheen.
Zack dropped doggedly upon one end of the bench and expanded his wrath, "Side, ef I could jes cuss as scanalous as what you kin, it sho would do me a heap o' good. Cause ef dat gin house had burnt up you couldn't ha' seed me an' Cunnel fer de dus', a flyin' down dat river. But dar's de gin house, an' us got to stay here ontil some ma' cotton gits ginned."
The scales flew from Said's fish, like shavings in a planer mill, until his master rose and stalked towards the quarters. Then Said leered after him with the murderous eye of hate at one who barred his way to riches.
During the early afternoon Zack appeared on the porch and shouted, "Whar he? Side!" There upon the Dongalawi followed his master and the three white men to inspect their experimental cotton farm. As befitted the honor of his position, Zack rode a gray donkey, like the Ingleezi. It was only Said who pattered along on foot, for Said was a messenger. In the hopes of hearing better cheer, old Zack stuck mighty close to the Colonel, while the Dongalawi kept his eyes upon the ground; yet Said listened and saw.
The American planter had brought five varieties of cotton seed to Wadi Okar. At intervals of two weeks he planted one experimental acre of each, keeping a detailed record of the dates, method of cultivation, amount of rainfall, development of stalk and fiber, and its ultimate yield. By this means it was hoped to ascertain the most favorable season to plant both American and Egyptian varieties, and to determine which gave the better results.
"There, gentlemen!" With a sweep of his arm the Colonel indicated sixty scattered acres. "There, gentlemen, is a glorious sight, something that the eye of no Mississippi cotton planter has ever rested on. Here is one field already picked, its cotton ginned and baled; in that field is a squad of men still picking; here they are laying by the crop; yonder is a gang of hoe hands, chopping out weeds from the young plants. Over there, the plowmen are breaking ground for new seed. Nobody ever saw all that work going on at once. It's a wonderful country. I have more than half a notion to stay another year."
"Lawd Gawd, Cunnel!" Zack let out a yelp of protest and terror.
"What's the matter, Zack?" The Colonel laughed merrily as a boy, for the planting spirit was strong upon him.
Neither of the Britishers gave way to hilarities; cotton pioneering in the Sudan was not a joke. Mr. Bim looked especially solemn; and said, "Your cotton has grown marvelously, Colonel. But the labor? Zack, do you think these laborers are satisfied?"
"Naw suh, Mister Bim. Tain't nary nigger on dis place would show up to-morrer mornin' ef dat ole king feller didn't make 'em not—nary one."
"I'm afraid that's true," McDonald assented; "and the king knows it. Next year he'll demand more than it would cost us to hire skilled labor, say from America."
This was McDonald's favorite mirage, the colonization of American negroes in the Sudan. "Zack, could you get four hundred of your friends to come over here?"
"Dey ain't comin', Mister Bim; an' ef us fotch 'em, dey wouldn't stay. An' ef dey stayed, dey wouldn't be no count."
"But, with these trifling exceptions American negroes might prove a success, eh, Zack?" the Colonel laughed, then hushed, for McDonald seemed in deadly earnest.
"We would pay them very high wages," Mr. Bim suggested, but Zack persisted in shaking his head.
"Wage don't make no diffunce, Mister Bim, not ef de nigger can't spend his money."
"Think how much he would have to take home next year."
"Huh! Mister Bim, you ain't cotch on to nigger ways. Nigger don't aim to take none home. He ain't studyin' 'bout next week, let alone next year!"
"Why wouldn't they come? And why wouldn't they remain?" McDonald asked, for he embraced much of this data in his monthly report to the Honorable Directors.
Three white men on donkeys gathered around Zack's donkey, and everybody listened, including Said, as the expert on black psychology explained, "You see, Mister Bim, it's jes' like dis: yonder's a bunch o' niggers pickin' cotton; yonder is a bunch o' niggers plantin' cotton, and some mo' niggers choppin' cotton—all at de same time. Dis work comes too stiddy an' reg'lar. Back home"—he nodded indefinitely down the great river—"back home a nigger breaks up his lan' den he rests a while. He puts in de seed an' rests some mo'; when he chops out de young cotton, he kin set down in de shade an' watch it fer de longes'. Den he lays by de crop, an' rests a whole lot; dat ends it until pickin' time comes; an' at pickin' time de boss hires a passel o' town niggers to he'p him. Dem niggers back home wouldn't like dis—I been here gwine on six months, an' ain't never seed nary Saddy, nor yit nary Sunday. What time is a nigger got to go to town? And d'aint no town fer him to go to."
McDonald paid strict attention to every word. "Then you are of the opinion that the employment of labor imported from America would not be feasible?"
"I dunno what you signify by all dat, Mister Bim, but dem niggers ain't comin'. Dey couldn't act like dey does at home; an' 'twouldn't be long befo' dey'd be runnin' naked in de woods, same ez dese niggers does."
Both the eager Britishers turned to Colonel Spottiswoode, who got redder and redder in the face, until he broke out laughing.
"My dear Colonel Spottiswoode, what do you think?"
"I reckon Zack's got the situation sized up about right," which endorsement started Zack's tongue again.
"Mister Bim, I wouldn't stay here—not fer all of Africky Landin'. I been making plenty money, but money don't buy me nothin'." Zack blundered on in his desperate donkey-back argument. "An' Cunnel wouldn't stay here neither; he's settin' on dat donkey right now studyin' 'bout his reg'lar Christmas bear hunt, when all de gen'lemen has a good time, an' all de niggers has a good time. I don't wish nobody no harm, but I wouldn't cry none ef dat gin house had 'a' burnt up."
The smile vanished from the Colonel's face, for Zack had flicked him on the raw by suggesting the Christmas bear hunt, which he would miss. But the white man felt his responsibility. "Well, Zack," he said, "the gin is here, and so are we. Go along now and fry your fish; it's nearly time for the men to knock off."
Beckoning for Said to follow, old Zack batted his donkey over the head, and trotted towards the Hot Cat Eating House.
"Your negro seems to be in a grubby bad humor," commented Lyttleton.
"Yes," responded the Colonel, "he's a child, and wants to go home."
In silence they reached the catfish shack, and in silence the Dongalawi knelt down to blow his fire. Zack never spoke a word until after he had scorched the first pan of fish; then he tore off his apron, and exploded:
"Side, I ain't studyin' 'bout cookin' no fish. I'm studyin' 'bout gittin' back to Vicksburg."
The Black Effendi strode outside their shack to sit cross-legged on the bench in front. Presently he took out twenty sovereigns of unspent gold:
"Side, I would drap dese right down on de groun' an' walk off from 'em, ef dat ole gin house was to burn up, so I could go home. Here, nigger, you stay here an' sell dese fish. Yas suh, yas suh. I sho' would give a hundred dollars to anybody what burnt dat gin."
"Saadat! Excellency! You say——" The Dongalawi dropped upon his knees in the sand and groveled towards the Black Effendi. "Excellency, you say——"
But Zack paid him no mind; he merely dug both hands in his pockets and jingled the gold as he hurried away from the Hot Cat Eating House. And Said the Dongalawi remained upon his knees, staring after the Black Effendi.