Old Reliable in Africa/Chapter 1
THE OCEAN GAMBLERS
THE S. S. Trojan floated the sailing signal at her New York dock. Thin smoke curled upward from her funnels. Sea men laced her loins with many a ring and eyelet; deck-boys rubbed her windows and polished her brasses. Electricians, mechanics, cooks, and quick-stepping lads in white jackets hurried through hidden within. Sooty-faced men in her grimy depths toiled at boilers and bunkers, heedless of what went on above, like coral insects that build beneath the waves. Officers ran their eyes along spar and rigging; tested every life-boat and davit—grooming their racer for the long, long track. Alertly still she lay, keel and wheel, breathing from the bottom of her lungs, holding her steely muscles in leash, calm without, but trembling through every nerve and fiber, like a Kentucky thoroughbred at the starter's post.
In contrast with the crew's strict discipline, masses of unorganized, undirected people surged back and forth across her decks. Like breakers they ebbed and flowed, congesting in the corners, and rushing out again. A mingled stream of comers and goers jostled each other along her gangplank, restless, excited people who spoke all tongues and wore all garbs. Some for the first time launched their adventures upon the deep; others, drawn by the lure of intangible horizons, longed for strange lands and craved the salt odor in their nostrils.
Through that motley throng upon the dock came a ruddy-faced man, with broad white Panama covering his gray hairs, and a linen suit that flapped like sail-cloth around his sturdy legs—Colonel Beverly, Spottiswoode, cotton-planter, of Vicksburg, Mississippi. Beside him walked two top-hatted Englishmen, men of affairs in their tight little Island.
At the head of the gangplank the Colonel turned, "Zack!" he shouted, "Where's Zack?"
"Comin', suh." Old Reliable tore through the crowd as if untangling himself from a wire fence, a half-sucked orange in one hand and a brand-new suitcase in the other. New store-bought clothes hung upon him in corrugations; a new, flaming red necktie climbed the back of his neck. He took out a new handkerchief, removed a new hat, and mopped the same old bald territory underneath. Everything was new except Old Reliable.
"Cunnel," he panted, "I never stopped a minute, 'cept jes to git dis orange; whole bunch o' trunks got me blocked off. Reckon dey don't know I'm gwine over to larn dem niggers at Africky Landin'."
"Get aboard, Zack!" the Colonel gave him a shove, "unless you want to swim."
Both Englishmen deferentially indicated the gangplank for Colonel Spottiswoode to descend. After them came Zack, followed by a couple of English servants with hand-luggage.
"May I venture to suggest, Colonel, that we inspect your cabin at once. Lord Meadowcroft instructed us to see that you were entirely comfortable."
They inspected in force. The cabin was more than comfortable; it was luxurious. The English men dissected it in detail, even to seeing that the magazines and newspapers were the very latest. "We hope you like your cabin, sir."
The Southerner glanced around him—sleeping room, sitting-room, bath, and quarters for Zack. "But I don't need all this," he laughed. "I'm not going on a wedding trip."
"Lord Meadowcroft's instructions, sir. Our government is your debtor, sir." The English men bowed together.
"His Lordship hopes, sir——," The older Englishman indicated a stock of books, pamphlets and official reports piled upon the table. "His Lordship would be pleased, sir, if you see fit to examine these reports on our cotton-planting experiments in Nigeria, Uganda and Egypt. Then, sir, you might advise our Honorable Board of Governors more intelligently on the affairs of our new syndicate in the Sudan."
Both the Britishers stepped back while Colonel Spottiswoode ran through the documents. "I've read most of these," he said. "Your trouble seems to be lack of water, and the inefficient labor. I never saw an irrigated cotton-field—we have too much water, overflow, you know; our levees break. And nobody can understand a labor problem until he gets on the ground. That's why you long-distance planters go broke."
"Yes, sir," agreed the Englishmen; "our Honorable Board of Governors are a jolly good bit away from their plantations. But you will set all that to rights, sir."
Zack stood in the middle of the sitting-room, holding his grip-sack and pasting down the edges of a hotel label. "Huh!" he muttered. "Dat Irish feller at de eatin' house didn't want to paste nary tag on my grip-sack; huh!"
"Zack," remarked the Colonel; "there's your room; walk in and hang up your hat."
At first Zack peered gingerly into the servant's quarters, then like a pet coon he began to with its glittering appliances. "Dis sholy is one curious wash-bowl—gotter spout like a pitcher. Seliny ain't never gwine to believe dis."
"Here, Zack," the Colonel called; "let's go up on the guards and see her shove off."
On deck again his English friends plied him with mature and deliberate suggestions while Colonel Spottiswoode watched the arrival of belated passengers. A tall young man, dressed in extreme fashion, halted at the upper end of the angplank. Two servants carried his small bags, while another held in his arms a bored-looking bull dog with spike-studded collar. The young man paid attention to nothing but the dog. His chauffeur inquired, "Shall I put your luggage aboard, sir?"
"No; beastly nuisance," the young man addressed the dog; "Jack, old fellow, do you want to go? I leave it to you. Shall we go or stay?"
The dog seemed more wearied than the master, with no hopes for a novelty on either side of the Atlantic. "Warren," asked the young man, "is it going to rain?"
"I think so, sir."
"Then put the baggage aboard." Mr. J. Blair Eaton ordered, as with languid indifference he and the dog descended the gangplank. Behind Mr. Eaton stepped Joe Sloan, the gambler. While Eaton hesitated whether to go or stay, this man never removed his shifty eyes. Joe Sloan's nose wasn't straight with his face, and Joe wasn't straight with anything. Nature never put such a crooked sign on straight goods. Mr. J. Blair Eaton didn't believe in signs.
At the lower end of the gangplank waited a burly man with a blue cap and hand satchel. "You're late, Joe," he whispered; "I thought your chicken had flew the coop, so I was fixing to get off this boat."
"Yes, Cap," Joe Sloan replied. "Eaton changed his mind forty times in twenty minutes—slippery fish; but mighty good when you catch him."
"Well," whispered the big man; "cabin's all ready; cigars and liquor, brands that he likes. We've got to make a killing." Cap Wright strolled off while Joe leaned casually against the rail.
In passing Cap Wright nudged his partner. "Look who's here! Prince Jim," pointing to Colonel Spottiswoode, between the Englishmen.
"Prince Jim," Joe Sloan exclaimed. The younger gambler turned to gaze admiringly upon a man of whom he had long heard as the acknowledged king of their craft—who had enriched their traditions with so many niceties of skill and daring.
"Don't the Prince put up a stiff front?" whispered Cap. "Tain't no other man in the business would be smooth enough to bring them respectable-looking blokes to the steamer, and stand 'em up before everybody. Them's his letter of credit. There's good pickin's on this ship, or he wouldn't be here. Jim ain't no tin-horn piker."
Reflecting upon Prince Jim's exploits set Cap's reminiscence mill to working: "Well, well, I ain't seen him for twenty years. Once in a while we'd get word of him working them P. & O. Steamers, out of Sydney to Ceylon. He's changed a heap, but I'd know him; linen clothes, Panama hat, Southern Planter style—that's Prince Jim."
Zack did not mean to get separated from the Colonel, but those people were doing so many interesting things, it was like a one-eyed boy watching a three-ringed circus. He just naturally drifted along deck and got caught in a jam at the foot of the gangplank. People shoved him backward until a timid voice spoke at his elbow. "I beg your pardon, sir, but I am in your way." It was a young girl, Miss Stanton, who wriggled around until she saw his black face, then laughed, "Oh, it's you, Uncle—Uncle Zack."
Zack beamed. "Yas'm, it's me. How come you know twuz me?"
Miss Stanton laughed again; "I heard that gentleman speak to you, the one in the linen suit; both of you are from the South, aren't you?"
"Sho is! Us come from Vicksburg, Mississippi. You come from down yonder too! I knowed dat de fust minute you spoke 'Uncle'."
"Aren't these people rough?" she nodded. "I'm afraid they'll break my violin."
Zack saw that Miss Stanton was hugging a violin case, so he reached out a lean arm behind her and braced himself against the rail. "Stand right still, Missy. Dey ain't gwine to shove you no mo'."
"Thank you, Uncle Zack."
"'Taint nothin' 'tall, Missy, an' not much o' dat. Is you gwine on dis 'scussion?"
"Yes," she smiled, "I'm going on the excursion, Uncle—what is your name?"
"Zack Foster, Miss; but ev'body, white an' black, calls me 'Ole Reliable'."
Miss Stanton giggled, which opened Zack's confidence. "Yas'm, all dem big bug white folks, up an' down Cherry Street, dey knows me reel good. And 'tain't nary one of 'em but what gives Ole Reliable a mighty high name. You know—Missy——"
"Hush!" she said. "Look!" pointing to the dock.
On Doris Stanton's last night in New York, she had gone to hear a wonderful Italian woman sing her farewell to America, amidst a glitter of lights, a deluge of flowers, and an audience that cheered like mad. How the girl's heart beat! Jealously she maintained her position at the gang plank to watch this famous singer come aboard the Trojan.
Others were waiting too. The dock bristled with leveled cameras like cannon from a fortress. Dozens of reporters stood with notebooks ready. The world hungered to hear in detail what this woman wore, how she talked and walked—what colored ribbons were on her dog. Was the Count di Castelleone really her husband? or was she going to marry Reifenstein? Everything, anything pertaining to the celebrity. "Look, Uncle Zack!" Miss Stanton gasped as men began to clear a passage for the diva. She was going to see the Signorina Certosa, off the stage. The second officer of the Trojan waved his hand for people to stand aside. A retinue of men-servants stumbled along beneath their boxes, bags and bundles which had been forgotten until the last moment. Others came with arms full of flowers, gorgeous roses dropped their petals and made a path for the singer's feet.
A shrill-voiced duenna gave orders to the maids; Count di Castelleone held aloft a gay stack of American Beauties, marching in the van of her ladyship's escort. Signorina Aurora Certosa bowed herself along, between a swarthy young Italian with her pet dog and a blonde German who bore her parrot in its cage. Click! click! click! went the cameras. Aurora smiled and bowed so that the American newspapers might print very pretty pictures of her very pretty self. Miss Stanton clapped her hands, and joined in the general cheer.
When Castelleone put his foot upon the deck he turned to make some gallant remark to the Signorina. But he did not dare. She had wearied of his following her from Italy, all over America, and he knew it.
"Look, Cap," whispered Joe Sloan, "I saw them three fellows rollin' 'em mighty high in Washington. Maybe the Prince is after them."
"Hope so; then he'll let our chicken alone."
The great singer being safely aboard, an officer gave orders, "All ashore." Miss Stanton watched the tearful, laughing, hysterical good-bys; husbands and wives, parents and children, friends who were separating from friends—with farewell gifts of roses, boxes of candy, bundles of magazines. She glanced at the crowded dock. "There's nobody here to tell me good-by," she sobbed. "Nobody cares."
A stream of people poured back to the dock; a late passenger tumbled over them to get aboard. Chains rattled, ropes creaked—the vessel began to move, a thousand handkerchiefs went fluttering. Everybody was waving to somebody. For a moment the girl's eyes blurred. "Doris Stanton, you're a fool; you're going to cry," she gulped in her throat and lifted her head defiantly.
The ship began to tremble and groan. The hazy smoke from her funnels changed to dense black. A widening crevasse yawned between deck and dock. The jagged skyline of New York became visible, a vague and spectral city against a vague and spectral sky. Miss Stanton wormed her small self away from the rail, got clear, and fled with her precious violin. On the way to her modest cabin she passed an open door; the odor of flowers stopped her. She paused and stared inside, at a wilderness of roses, masses of carnations, beds of violets—a profusion of orchids, silk hangings, silver trappings. The singer's maids were setting things to rights.
"I don't care; I don't care, I'm happy," she insisted, then rushed into her own room and snatched a shriveled bouquet from the basin. These were not the kind of flowers that florists pack with purple ribbons, but the kind that come from country gardens, tied up by country girls. Doris remembered every bush, and knew where every blossom had grown. She darted to the right hand deck, which was almost deserted, hastily picked her flowers to pieces and began scattering petals on the water. One by one they fluttered down, and her dim eyes followed them as they drifted past.
"Dat's jes fer luck, ain't it, Missy?" Zack's sympathetic face at her elbow looked very homey and very kind. The old negro from home understood the girl from home.
"Yes," she smiled bravely, "and for pluck too—we all need pluck."
"Dat's jes what Selina keeps a-sayin' to me. She argufies dat I sets too much sto' on luck. But Lordee, Miss, when I gits in hard luck it mought rain twenty dollar gold pieces, an' ketch me wid boxin' gloves on—so I couldn't pick 'em up."
Miss Stanton laughed merrily, while Zack straightened up and responded to her encore. "Ole Uncle Aaron, he prophesy to me like dis, 'Zack,' he say, 'ef Luck's agin yer, you mought jes as well lie down flat er yo' back an' say 'Here I is, Luck; what yer gwine do wid me?"
Miss Stanton flung the last of her bouquet over board. "Now!" she announced, "I'm all right again."
"Yas'm, 'twarn't nothin' but luck when I seed you comin' round here wid dem flowers, an' sumpin' jes popped in my min', 'Missy is feelin' po'ly; Zack, you go an' talk to li' miss; she ain't likin' it much 'bout gwine so fer away from home.'"
Miss Stanton listened gladly, and made a fatal mistake, unless she wanted Zack tagging along. He was itching to talk; so he deserted Colonel Spottiswoode and followed the girl from home, who would laugh at his time-worn stories.