Old Reliable in Africa/Chapter 12

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GARGARIN and Lykoff both observed a second carriage which followed Old Reliable, and deposited the police agent whom Gargarin had dispatched to the quarantine station. Lykoff did not know this; but to offset his ignorance, he saw something else which Gargarin never suspected. He alone saw the veiled inspection which the beggar made of Old Reliable. A pair of shrewd Arab eyes searched the negro's face, gray hat, woolen suit, heavy shoes—and the beggar knew it could only be the man with the message; for Zack's like was not in the land of Egypt. The beggar groveled, and whined, and waited. Time is nothing to a beggar. The British soldier marched in, between the chairs and tables, and saluted Lyttleton Bey, "Here is your man, sir."

"Very good," and Lyttleton dismissed him.

Zack shuffled along behind his liberator, indignant at the outrages which had been heaped upon him. He passed the beggar, he passed the desert sheikh; Ole Reliable warn't studyin' these folks. He itched to find the Colonel.

"Well, Zack," Spottiswoode laughed, "I'm glad they didn't clap you in jail. Next time maybe you'll stick to me, and keep out of trouble."

"Gawd's troof, Cunnel; you hadn't no more'n turned your back befo' dem yaller policemens grabbed me. It sho is worrysome to be 'rested by niggers. Dey wouldn't lissen to no sense; jes shoved me in dat flatboat and——"

"Never mind, Zack. We'll talk about that to-morrow; I'm busy now. Are you hungry?"

"Yas, suh; ain't touched a bite o' vittles."

"Wahid!" called Lyttleton Bey. Zack looked around curiously; Fudl appeared and Lyttleton ordered: "Take this man and give him food."

"Very good, sir," Fudl answered his master.

Zack felt mighty dubious about this long-shirted negro, but followed without protest in the direction of victuals.

Then an extraordinary thing happened, for Zack got quick action, action so sudden, so dramatic that it jerked every man to his feet. Everything was perfectly quiet in that room when Zack came abreast the desert Sheikh, Muza, who stood with his spearmen in the full glare of an electric light. The negro stopped and stared at the Mahometan leader, from head to foot, for one long moment of solemn surprise. Slowly a grin appeared, lengthened and broadened, and overspread Zack's countenance. Recognize that fellow? Of course Zack recognized him. Hadn't Guinea tipped him the wink that there were plenty of lodge brothers around here? Zack cast a stealthy glance towards his white folks. The white folks weren't payin' him no mind. So Zack whispered a magic word to the sheikh and made a complicated sign with his fingers; after which he raised his right arm and strode boldly towards the desert chieftain. Nobody knew exactly how it happened—it happened in silence except for Zack, who rent the peaceful night. The first that Colonel Spottiswoode heard was a yell from Old Reliable, "You niggers ack too rough! Lemme git up. Lemme git up."

Colonel Spottiswoode sprang to his feet and ran towards Zack; Lykoff darted between the tables and stood beside the Southerner, while Gargarin bolted forward, with the British officers. Old Reliable lay flat on his back, struggling in the sand. Four spearmen held him down, their weapons flashing in the light. Not a word they spoke, but pinned him firmly, and looked to their sacred sheikh for orders. Mahomet ben Muza Gazan stood motionless, his arms folded, contemplating the presumptuous black who had dared to threaten his consecrated person.

Lyttleton and McDonald seized the Colonel and prevented him from trying to release Zack by force; for well they knew the temper of these Saharan visionaries.

"Lemme go! lemme go! quit dis foolishness. I'm financial jes same as you." Zack struggled vainly with Muza's fierce-eyed bodyguard, who were selected for their strength. Then Lyttleton spoke in Arabic to Sheikh Muza but gained no answer. Muza's sharp, black eyes glittered with hate for these sons of Christian dogs. Hundreds of turbans were massed in the sandy space outside, waiting but a word from him who represented the sanctity of their religion. Behind the little group of Europeans stood other silent men in robes and turbans and sun-scorced faces. It was the month of fervor and fanatics, it was Ramadan, the month of the pilgrimage. A hasty word might fan their smoldering zeal into a whirlwind of riot; and the British hesitated while Lyttleton consulted with McDonald. McDonald shook his head. From the throng behind them an aged man came forth, richly dressed, with a band of blue in his turban. With grave salutations he salaamed before the sheikh, addressing him in a tongue which even Lyttleton could not understand. Muza neither moved nor changed countenance; the old Arab continued speaking smoothly and his words were few. The spearmen heard him with reverence, yet looked only to their sheikh. Muza nodded imperceptibly, but sufficiently unto them who obeyed his lightest nod as law.

Then did the sullen spearmen loose their hold; Zack scrambled to his feet, brushing off the sand, and grumbling, "Dat ain't no way to treat a brudder—gittin' all dese white folks mixed up in nigger foolishness. I done been 'nishiated anyway."

Lykoff edged closer to Gargarin, clutching a keen knife in his pocket. He turned intensely pale as he passionately scanned the Bloodhound's face. If by this trick Gargarin got possession of his cipher, Lykoff meant to cut his throat—that much he could do for his slaughtered friends. His eyes flamed, but Lykoff never acted in haste. Old Reliable continued to brush the sand from his clothes. Not once did the negro feel his pocket to see if the capsule had been disturbed. For which Lykoff thought him wise. Presently Gargarin strolled back and took his seat; but there was no triumph in his step, and the other Russian knew it.

"Come along, Zack," Colonel Spottiswoode drew his negro towards the table they had just vacated. The loungers about the room settled down and in bated breath discussed the significant incident.

"Now, Zack," urged the Colonel, "tell me the truth! What was that racket about?"

Zack hung his head and paid strict attention to picking off a few grains of sand.

"Out with it," ordered the Colonel.

Old Reliable grinned sheepishly. "Twarn't nothin', Cunnel, nothin' 'cept a passel o' tomfoolery. Some niggers, jes soon as dey gits lodge clothes on 'em, dey commence to ack biggety—specially dese yaller niggers. Yonder's dat Grand Gardeen, jes look at 'im, all puffed up wid hisself."

"That what?"

"Grand Gardeen. I hailed him wid de sign an' password, an' dem four niggers shoved me down. Dey can't have no 'nishiashun right in front o' white folks' hotel. Must be new members what don't know deir business."

Lyttleton and McDonald listened intently, trying to get the straight of what had occurred. Perhaps there might be a deeper meaning and they wanted to know.

"Kindly repeat that; I do not understand," inquired Lyttleton. Zack began to feel easier; his apologetic grin became beautiful and beaming, "You see, Mister, dem niggers is members o' my lodge. Dat fellow wid striped clothes on, he's de Gran' Noble Gardeen; dat's de head-leader-boss. Dey must be holdin' gran' lodge. Ev'y nigger considers he got a right to ack fool at gran' lodge."

Both Britons stared at Zack with stolid faces. The matter was beyond them. Colonel Spottiswoode listened, almost as mystified. Then he began to laugh, and asked, "Zack, what did you take that man for?"

"Take 'im for? I knows. He's Gran' Gardeen o' de Sons o' David. I knowed 'im fust minute I sot eyes on dem clothes."

The Colonel in turn stared at Old Reliable, whose serene smile reassured him. The negro had wriggled from beneath the heel of death without a thought of having been in danger. "Zack, weren't you afraid they might kill you with those spears?"

Zack grinned tolerantly at the Colonel's ignorance, "Lordee, Cunnel, dem stickers can't hurt nobody. Dey ain't nothin' 'cept pasteboard, wid silver paper on 'em."

The American couldn't help it; he threw back his head and laughed. Lyttleton and McDonald promptly hushed him, "Sh! these Arabs might consider that we are making sport of their religion. See, they are passing the news from mouth to mouth—but what was it all about?"

Colonel choked an hysterical merriment. "Go along, Zack, and get something to eat." Lyttleton Bey added a few words in Arabic to Fudl, as that prudent person led his dangerous companion out by another way where he would not come in contact with the tribesmen. Meeting his own people in the shadows, Fudl touched his forehead and pointed significantly to Zack.

"Madman," the people said unsmilingly, and went their way with the tidings.

"Rather singular person that, I fancy," McDonald remarked after Colonel Spottiswdode had failed to make either of them understand what Old Reliable had done.

"No, he's just an ordinary bullet-headed negro. He'll be lucky if he gets yard-broke before he gets his neck broke. Let's hire him a servant—a good cautious wet-nurse."

"Yes," assented McDonald, "he might cause much annoyance," and Lyttleton promptly agreed. "I shall send for a man. Wahid! Fudl!"

Fudl came running, "Effendi."

"I have need for a servant."