Old Reliable in Africa/Chapter 5
STINGY WITH AMMUNITION
IMMEDIATELY after breakfast next morning Colonel Spottiswoode went upstairs, and Zack found him pacing the deck with a problem. Up and down the slippery boards he walked, up and down the long, long lanes of dripping canvas, passing an interminable line of empty chairs, with here and there a disgusted passenger swearing at the weather. Every three minutes the fog horn let out its raucous noise. To the left a hidden steamer was tooting another horn; behind them, still another. Back and forth the Colonel paced, with hands behind him, once in a while dropping into his chair, with a pad, and trying to figure out how much he had won from each of those men on Cap Wright's crooked deal. The effort was hopeless. There is no way to untangle the complications of a poker game. If the other winners had agreed to call off the game, and restore their fraudulent gains, a settlement would have been easy. Whatever the others did, the Colonel must square himself. He could not carry that sort of money in his pocket.
Zack tagged at his heels, full of enthusiasm over the big concert which Signorina Aurora was planning, when little Missy was goin' to play. He tried to tell about it, but after many shakes and turns caught the idea that the Colonel did not want to talk.
Meeting Mr. Shields, the Colonel nodded. Neither made an advance. There the matter stood.
The Italians and Reifenstein kept together, close together, walking or standing. They moved along jerkily, stopped, circled around each other, put their heads together, and talked in whispers. Whenever the Colonel passed he caught them looking the other way. "Cunnel," says Zack, "what you reckon ails dem gentmuns? Yistiddy dey axed mo' questions dan enuff 'bout Li Miss an' her fiddle. Jes now when I says 'good mornin'' dat biggest one kinder nodded; but dem yuthers never said nuthin'—'cept 'barbarous murder' an' 'big pistols.' Dey sholy is got sumpin' on dey min'."
As a matter of fact the three had ceased discussing the all-important seven hundred and eighty-five dollars, which they had lost. They spoke only of those pistols, guardedly, and evasively, even with each other. Having slept on the prospect, Castelleone modified his original enthusiasm at being the first man to get in a challenge.
Turning a corner and leading his dog, Mr. J. Blair Eaton came up blandly to the Colonel, with a greeting that for him was more than effusive. Colonel Spottiswoode cut him short.
"Our acquaintance, sir," he said, "began—and ended—last night." Then the Colonel resumed his tramp, while Eaton stood staring.
"Dear me. Dear me. What can be the matter with the fellow?"
When the Colonel turned and started back, Eaton dragged his bulldog around the corner and gave him a vicious kick.
A stir at the head of the stairs attracted Zack's attention, and he ran in to watch the elaborate forerunners of Signorina Aurora's progress to the music room. Zack loved the orderly confusion of a grand entrance at the beginning of the main circus. He watched with open mouth.
First came the maid, Constanza, who bustled into the music room, and with artistic eye chose the divan upon which Aurora would recline. The color scheme must harmonize. Deck stewards brought rugs and shawls, hung toilet bags over the back of Signorina's divan, placed bon-bon dishes, dainty baskets of fruit. Constanza stepped back, surveyed it critically, then a touch here, a pat there, and all was ready.
Aurora emerged from her cabin, radiantly, smilingly emerged. Fussy assistants draped her properly on the divan, and covered one of her pretty feet. The other pretty foot was left accidently and artistically visible, with a sufficient visibility above it to indicate what the other ankle and stocking were like. The Signorina affected purples and lavenders this morning—a purple deck-bonnet—of puritan primness, such as Priscilla might have worn to keep the wind from tossing her hair—leaving those long lavender streamers for the wind to play with.
"Sit here, Carissima," she said to Miss Stanton, drawing the girl beside her.
Miss Stanton wore no purples, lavenders or jewels—just a simple skirt and waist; her firm round forearms were bare of bracelets and her fingers devoid of rings. She had brushed her hair in soft curves from her forehead, and it billowed around her head. Perhaps the Signorina had thought of the foil that this gentle Southerner would make for her own voluptuous magnificence, and Miss Stanton lost nothing by the contrast.
Aurora's confident eyes turned to the happy brown ones, "Come now, Carissima, we shall talk about your benefit—what will you play?" Miss Stanton astounded the Signorina by her familiarity with the world's great music. "Very well, you shall play what you choose. You will surprise us, yes, yes. Captain, come here." She beckoned the bewhiskered officer. "I give a benefit, you know, for this young lady. She will play so wonderfully; I shall sing three times—three songs."
The gallant captain bent over her, "When have we such happiness?"
"This night, this very night. I cannot sleep until mia carissima is provided for."
Miss Stanton moved uneasily, and would have run away had not the other held her. "Please don't," she whispered; "it makes me feel——"
"Tut—tut—tut, it is their privilege. They feed their pigs, they stable their cattle. Such an artiste as yourself comes once only in a lifetime. Captain, post a notice at once, that Aurora will sing to-night, at eight. Tickets $5.00. I shall myself buy twenty. It is worth twenty tickets to hear Miss Stanton play the violin."
The diva's enthusiasm gained strength like a rolling stone. She called passenger after passenger to her side. They were glad to come, proud to buy tickets from her own hand, by the twos and fives and tens.
Zack stood grinning at the door. He knew that something important was going on, some thing that made the little Miss look very flushed and happy. When Miss Stanton caught sight of him, she touched Aurora's hand, "There's the old black man that you wanted to hear talk."
"Call him, my dear, call him. He is so amusing."
Miss Stanton nodded cordially, and Zack came sidewise into the big room.
"What are you laughing at, Uncle Zack?" she inquired. Aurora sat up straight to hear what he said. Zack grinned: "I jes been lookin' at all dis water an' studyin' 'bout sump'n."
"Studying about what?" Miss Stanton drew him out.
"You say tain't nothin' but water up dat a-way?" pointing towards the north. Miss Stanton agreed.
"An' nothin' 'cept water down yonder way?" indicating the south. Miss Stanton nodded again.
"An' de onliest banks is over yonder, an' back yonder whar us come from?" Zack broke out into a loud laugh, "I war jes studyin', ef all de men was on one side, an' all de wimmen on de yuther, an twarn't no way to walk around dat water; it jes fell in my min' to laff at what a mighty scufflin' dere'd be 'mongst dem wimmen learning how to swim."
Aurora leaned back and laughed, which tickled Zack into showing all his teeth. Miss Stanton kept him talking, "Now, Uncle Zack, what did you say your name is?"
Zack bowed profoundly, and brushed his cap against the crimson carpet; then he straightened up, "Zack Foster, Ma'am; but ev'body, white an' black, in de whole ontire city o' Vicksburg, dey calls me 'Ole Reliable.'"
"Yas'm. Everybody sho do call me dat, an' I got a good right to it."
"What does he mean?" Aurora whispered.
"He means," Doris explained, "that people in America nickname a man for some trait of his character. And in that part of our country the people call Uncle Zack 'Old Reliable.'"
"What a splendid reputation!"
Zack smiled broadly at the radiant lady's praise, and opened his mouth so wide that if it hadn't been for his ears, the top of his head would have been an island.
"Yas'm, I got a pow'ful good reputation down yonder in Vicksburg, an' mos' everywhar. Ef you don't believe what I sez, you jes go an' ax Cunnel."
"Do you always travel with the Colonel?" Miss Stanton inquired.
"Yas'm; me and Cunnel allus goes together. He's gwine to Afriky Landin' to he'p me larn dem niggers how to raise cotton."
Reifenstein and the Italians drifted in and stood talking within a few feet of Aurora and never noticed her—which was quite insulting. Distinctly she caught Torreale's words, "Seven hundred and eighty-five dollars." Then she called out, "Torreale! Reifenstein! my dear Count, come here. You stupid, stupid creatures to talk about money. How vulgar, when I am giving a benefit to-night."
The three men bent over and listened politely until Reifenstein heard Zack say, "Yas'm, me an' Cunnel sojered durin' the whole entire war. An' sence den us been together all de time—continual—continual. Mos' in generally us hunts."
"The Colonel is a good shot, I suppose?" suggested Miss Stanton.
"Good shot? Did you say 'Good shot'? Sholy, Miss, you is heerd 'bout Cunnel's shootin'?"
Reifenstein did not intend a rudeness to Signorina Aurora, nor did Torreale; and Castelleone, who had followed her over three continents, had no thought of being ungallant. But all three turned from the lady and listened to the negro.
Zack sidled around until he could watch the door so that the Colonel wouldn't catch him; then took the bridles off his imagination and roamed through the gory fields of Spottiswoode's hunting exploits with specifications of certain marvelous shots. The three expectant duelists shivered as they listened, for Zack did his best.
"But the gentleman is getting old. His eyes?—" Castelleone suggested.
"Lordee, suh; 'pears like de Cunnel is jes now gittin' de hang o' dem eyes. Dis comin' fall I looks fer 'im to be at his best."
"Has he killed anybody lately?" inquired Torreale.
"No, suh, 'cep in de war. Dat war wouldn't lasted no time ef Cunnel hadn't been tuk down sick, an' I had to tote 'im home. Whilst he was outen his head wid fever de s'render come. You jes ought to heerd Cunnel stomp an' cuss when dey tole 'im dat. Fust he say he war gwine to git right up from dat bed an' do his fightin' all over agin. Fer de longest time nobody couldn't swade him dat Marse Robert done s'rendered. He wouldn't never b'lieved dat till now, 'ceptin' his own ma say twuz so. Doctor Pauldin' kep' 'im full o' medicine so he'd lie down and be still. Ef twarn't fer dat, 'tain't no tellin' what moughter happened. Lordee, gent'men, you all oughter see de Cunnel ketch his bridle wid his teef an' take a six-shooter in each han' he'd go gallopin' round a saplin' an' put every one o' dem twelve bullets smack in de middle—dat warn't nothin'. Everybody done dat, or dey couldn't stay in his army."
Doris Stanton turned her face away and gazed out of the port-hole; she hated for Zack to see her laughing. Then, at the first symptom of a halt, she set him going again, "Has your Colonel got in a good humor yet? about the war?"
Zack laughed, "Yas'm, Cunnel kin sorter smile 'bout it sometimes, 'cept when he sees one o' dem biggety niggers in Washington. But 'scusin' dem biggety niggers, Cunnel say now he sho is glad he got tuk down sick, so everything passed off nice an' pleasant. I heerd Cunnel speak dem very words to a passel o' white gent'men in N'Yawk."
"All of that—that shooting must be in—what do they call it—the wild West?" Torreale put the question in a whisper to Castelleone. Then he spoke aloud to Zack. "Does he kill many people in duels?"
"No, suh, Cunnel wouldn't hurt a fly. But he don't git no chance. Nobody won't fight no mo' duels wid Cunnel—dey done quit dat long ago. When folks notices dat de Cunnel is gittin' riled, dey jes goes out in de woods an' climbs a tree. Dat makes Cunnel grin, an' he sez: 'It's all right, boys; you kin come down agin, an' les' be friends.' 'Tain't nary yaller dog in Vicksburg what can't make friends wid Cunnel, 'scusin' dem times when he's pestered. And sump'n' sho did pester de Cunnel las' night. He's terrible riled to-day."
"Is he very, very rich?" inquired Aurora.
"Cunnel—he got a plenty—but, lady, he gives away money jes same as ef twuz buttons—fo' bits here, an' a dollar yonder. Folks jes laff an' say de onliest thing Cunnel is stingy 'bout is ammynition. He sho do hate to waste none o' dat. I been wid 'im, man an' boy, fer nigh on to fifty years, an' he ain't never wasted none to my knowin'. Comin', suh, comin'." Zack reached down, grabbed his hat and hustled out, for the Colonel himself had appeared at the door and beckoned him.
Three foreigners stared at each other. Castelleone wasn't satisfied. "Mees Stanton," he inquired, "what does the black mean when he says 'stingy wid ammynition'?"
Miss Stanton laughed outright and explained, "He says the Colonel never misses a shot—always hits something with each bullet. Hates to waste a shot, just as you hate to waste a dollar—to throw it away, to get nothing for it. Do you understand?"
"Si, Signorina—oh, yes—Mees——" Castelleone answered slowly.