Old Reliable in Africa/Chapter 9
THE YELLOW FLAG
THE Olga was nearing Alexandria, and emigrants from Russia, Greece, Roumania, were piling their plunder on the deck. Few of them smiled. Turkish children went stolidly about their work. Zack sniffed at their dirty bedding and evil-odored bundles that were being brought up from the hold. "Huh! dem things don't smell like no jewraniums; nigger as I is, dey makes me sick."
A sudden desire possessed Zack to be near the Colonel—where he could touch him with his hand when the crisis came. He started for the promenade deck, but Guinea cut him off at the steps with a caution, "Keep your mouth shet."
Zack nodded, "I ain't heered nuthin'."
With a heavy heart Old Reliable began climbing the steps to the first deck—"where de Cunnel was at."
It was an almost windless day—blue, immeasurable, unflecked on sea or sky. The Colonel's finger pointed straight ahead: "Look, Zack, there is the land of Egypt."
Zack could see something, something like a dusty fog that lay flat against the sea, but not his idea of mysterious Africa. The barbaric glamour did not appeal to Zack. Solid land up rose from the sea, the roofs of a city, and a harbor with long stone arms encircling countless masts—thicker than fishing-poles in a cane-brake. Zack saw nothing of the shore; he wasn't studying about those ridges of tiger yellow sands, with groups of plumy palms against an impalpable sky. They moved on slowly towards the harbor. The mosques and minarets of Alexandria never caught his shifty glances. He searched the sea and scanned the boats, kept his eyes peeled for yellow flags and not for scenery. The Fort of Kait Bay moved by unheeded; the Palace of Ras-el-Tin was nothing but a big yellow house—now if it had been a yellow flag.
Then, from somewhere—Zack hadn't heard it before—there came the "put-put-put" of a tug boat; he saw its blunt nose like an alligator, saw a yellow flag, and his breath stopped.
"Zack," the Colonel spoke and the negro jumped; "Zack, is our baggage ready?"
"Yas, suh, ready, suh."
"Get it up, and keep close to me."
Lykoff listened with satisfaction. He had this much advantage over the Bloodhound, who understood no English. Then suddenly Lykoff went sick. Zack pulled something from his vest pocket and dropped the capsule. Lykoff had almost sprung forward when Zack picked it up again, and the smiled inwardly. The black must be an accomplished diplomat; his face never betrayed him. Nobody could have suspected that capsule. The fact was that Zack had forgot about it. He had cholera on his mind. Blindly he stumbled down the salon steps. Everything below rattled in confusion. Porters and stewards jostled each other, dumping trunks into the main passage. He saw a lot of black-whiskered Russians who would be glad to chop off his fingers. Zack got through safely to the Colonel's cabin and came back, panting like a lizard, with the bags.
That yellow flag was approaching with all speed. Things began to happen exactly as Guinea had foretold. Zack shivered behind the Colonel. The ugly little boat bulged ahead. He could make out white faces, brown faces, yellow faces, all kinds of faces looking straight at him. The Olga dropped anchor and lowered a shaky flight of steps to the water. From the prow of the quarantine boat a brown-skinned giant reached out with a long stick that had an iron hook on the end. That must be to snatch folks off the rail, and pull 'em down into the boat. The giant lowered his hook, grappled the Olga's steps, and made fast alongside. A slimmish white man, with a face like sun-cracked leather, marched up the steps. Cold blue eyes glinted underneath his helmet—Zack saw no mercy. This man took his stand at the head of those steps on a little platform overhanging the sea. Then he beckoned for his file of mulatto soldiers with red caps. Everything happened just as Guinea said. Two other white men climbed up the steps from the little boat, two men in white clothes and white helmets. That terrible Russian Captain didn't even try to stop them; 'peared to Zack like he was bluffed. The Captain took off his hat to one little fat fellow, and gave him a lot of papers. While they were reading those papers Zack made a sneak to the other side of the ship. Guinea was right again. Two barges had been made fast to the Olga; a long step-ladder reached down to their decks. A soldier stood guard on the top platform. Zack was almost scared to look for the fumigating boxes—there they were, right there, two of them, made of boards, exactly big enough for a man to stand up inside and get smothered.
The first-cabin white folks had assembled in the smoking room, where the fat doctor was calling names from a paper. Every time he spoke somebody stuck out a tongue, and let him feel a pulse. Zack didn't see any fingers whacked off, but folks looked mighty skittish.
Presently a thin-legged sergeant crossed over to the other side of the deck, and took his station at the head of the steps. He shouted something to his yellow soldiers. They scattered along the lower decks, and began shoving folks toward the stairway. If people didn't get along fast enough the soldiers pushed 'em down to the barge. Then the folks commenced tumbling their beds and bundles on to the barge. Exactly what Guinea Ryan had prophesied.
The sergeant thrashed his own legs with a raw-hide whip. Once in a while he tapped some fellow over the back, to keep him hustling. Some of the steerage passengers came voluntarily; some had to be toted bodily. The sergeant counted every one, and checked them on a paper.
Zack caught a whiff from that bucket which a soldier carried; it smelled like carbolic.
"Uh!" he groaned, "I ain't gwine to let 'em squirt none o' dat down my throat." He saw Guinea Ryan cross the lower deck with a bundle, and disappear down the hatchway.
Old Reliable had endured the strain to the last limit of negro nature. Then he stampeded and ducked. Fright got in his legs—his knees wabbled backwards and forwards, outwards and inwards; but he succeeded in dodging past the Colonel, without breaking into a run. Having tumbled down the main staircase, he doubled a corner, and there was nothing to hold him until he reached the open space amidships. He tried to saunter carelessly across the lower deck; at the hatchway he dropped out of sight, like a bucket into a well.
The sergeant went on counting and shoving, and swearing and waiting. His barges filled with an indiscriminate mass. "One fifteen," he counted; "should be one nineteen."
"One sixteen," corrected Guinea Ryan; "check me off, Danny; but I won't take your barge to-day." Guinea smiled and produced his health certificate.
"Hello, Guinea," laughed the Sergeant Danny; "couldn't stay out of Egypt? Haven't been gone a week. Get along into the barge; all third-class health certificates canceled."
"What's the bloody row?" Guinea demanded.
"Orders changed; cholera everywhere. Promenade along, down the steps, you know the way."
Guinea had seen too much of the Far East to argue with a British sergeant about his orders. "Hard luck, Guinea," laughed Danny; "now we've got to smoke out the hide-aways—only three to-day." The boiler-maker grinned and said nothing as he wormed himself into a position on the barge where he could witness what happened to Old Reliable.