Old Reliable in Africa/Chapter 22

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CHAPTER XXII

A MAN OF SINGULAR BEARD

BRUISED and humiliated, Old Reliable was picking up his helmet and wiping the gritty sweat from his face when Said arrived. If every bone in his body were broken he wouldn't let those folks suspect that it hurt. They shouldn't grin at him; Zack did all the grinning himself. "Huh!" he remarked. "Dis here camel ridin' sho' is swif'."

Hamuda galloped up on his donkey, and jeered at Achmet, who fell to beating his beast, while a rabble gathered. Amongst that rabble appeared a man who tinkled two little brass saucers in his left hand, and carried a wondrous bottle swung across the front of him—big as a beer-keg, with spigots, thumb-screws and a yellow liquid within. Old Reliable began to smile upon this queer contraption, just as a bumped-headed baby quits crying and smiles at a rattle.

"Side, what is that thing?" Said explained that it was snow of the mountains, with lemon juice, most refreshing to the thirsty. Zack kept wiping the grit from his face and eyeing the bottle—"Side, ax dis feller how do he sell dat lemonade."

Achmet left off beating his camel and engaged in disputation with Hamuda. "He is wise," said Achmet, "this Black Effendi is very wise. That is known. He did but fall so that he might show displeasure with my beast and cheapen its price. He will buy. I speak the truth."

"Not so, not so," contended Hamuda; "he but turned to the camel for a deception, so that I would sell my donkey for less. He is more wise than thou."

"Give heed, Humuda," Achmet sneered, "and may thine ears carry somewhat of sense to thine understanding——"

Zack paid them no mind, being absorbed in contemplating that marvelous glass beer keg full of lemonade. He drank three glasses, and the lemonade man asked for no pay, not wishing to annoy so capacious a customer.

"Come along, Side; I wants to git in de shade. I been takin' too much exercise in dis here hot sun."

At first Said did not hear, he being engaged in discourse with an old man, a man of singular beard, robed in striped blue and yellow, and a face that seemed fitted to the Father of Kindness. This was Mchammed ben Idris, keeper of the bazaar, who led Old Reliable gently by the sleeve: "My house is thy house, and all that there is in it. Deign to enter. Be thou seated"—which Said dutifully translated—with decorations—to his master.

"Tell him thankee, suh; he sho' is a nice ole gen'leman."

The servant of Ben Idris placed a stool for Zack in the shade of a matting which overhung the front of his bazaar. Zack removed his helmet, and mopped his brow. Another salaaming servant set a tabourette before him, then a tiny cup of coffee, thick and syrupy, with cigarettes. Zack smacked his lips, lighted a cigarette, and his soul gained peace. It was shady in the bazaar, where Zack might gaze serenely upon cloths of many stripes and the gay handkerchiefs that hung within. Mohammed ben, Idris, with all dignity, laid out his wares—fluffy stuffs in billows of a vari-colored sea. Zack fingered them, and contrary to every tradition of the East, he praised Mohammed's goods.

"Dem sho' is good lookin' hankerchers. I wants a lot o' dem for Seliny."

From the river came the persistent shrieking of a whistle; the Ingleezi devil-boat was calling for all who meant to go aboard of her. Hamuda rushed forward in a frenzy and demanded that the Black Effendi be left to complete his purchase of a donkey. Achmet's knotted arms jerked Hamuda backward, and Mohammed ben Idris clapped his hands for servants to clear these brawlers from his house.

Even so, Mohammed ben Idris betrayed no exultation, as Zack selected fabric after fabric, until the stack beside him grew larger than that which yet remained with Mohammed. At times Said and Mohammed quibbled about the price, until Zack nodded his complete satisfaction.

"It's a heap easier to tote dese things dan to tote a mule er a camel." Far be it from Mohammed to taunt Hamuda or Achmet, who leaned against a post exchanging guttural anathemas. Said never looked their way because there were two of them, and only one of him; Said was a peaceful man.

At length Zack grew weary; he rose, yawned, and jingled the coins in his pockets. Mohammed ben Idris fawned upon the noble Black Effendi, who would now settle their rich score.

"Huh! I sho' is had a nice rest. In de name er Gawd, what is dat nigger doin'?" His back had been turned, or Zack would have noticed it before—a skinny brown man with a shallow skull cap and a brass soup-plate with a semi-circular chunk bit out of the edge. The skinny man had walked up to a chunky fellow in the next shop, stuck that soup-plate under his chin, so that the bit-out place fitted his neck. Then he began to spread white paste over the chunky man's face. The victim sat quietly, with a small mirror in his hand, while the other shaved him. Zack broke into a laugh. "Ain't dat de beatenes' barber shop! Huh!"

So he stood and watched the operation, and kept rubbing his own beard. "I got no bizness goin' 'mongst white folks wid no sech stubby beard as dis. Here, Side, tell dat feller I needs a shave."

But the shave would bring no profit to Said, and Said pretended not to hear. The whistle kept shrieking; Mohammed's bundle of cloth had not been paid for. They had agreed upon no price; there might be argument, for the cloth came to more than a donkey, nay, even more than a camel.

"Here, Side!" Zack ordered. "Git dat barber right quick. I wants a shave, I tole you."

The obedient Said hastened to do as he was bid. Ben Idris kept guard upon his guest, fending away the devil-minded Achmet and Hamuda.

Old Reliable had already been lathered when a meddlesome Nubian boy from the hotel wormed his way through the crowd, and out of it again. He it was who guided the big Irish sergeant and pointed to Zack.

Sergeant O'Flynn had a reputation for being thorough. He shook Zack by the shoulders and hoisted him, "Right about! Git a double quick on ye. The boat's been a-waitin' an' blowin' fer ye these two good hours."

"Lemme git my hat an' wash my face——" Zack was feeling around desperately for his helmet, which had rolled upon the sands.

"Grab the helmet—never moind the lather; that'll wipe off. Way there! Git out o' my way!" The rabble parted and left O'Flynn a clear passage.

"Hol' on, mister, hol' on——" Zack begged.

"Come along, ye bloomin' naygur. Sirdar's got his back up. He says, 'Fetch him, O'Flynn,' an' begad I will."

"Yas, suh, white folks, yas, suh."

Ben Idris stood dazed at the suddenness with which his customer was dragged away. A servant still held the bundle which was to bring so much gold. Then the keeper of bazaars fell into a wailing. Achmet and Hamuda combined to throttle Said, but the nimble Dongalawi had departed thence, his fluttering jibba being half way to the boat. A trail of the disappointed ones began to follow—Mohammed, the unpaid lemonade man, the barber, Achmet, Hamuda, and the rabble, all followed, yet at a discreet space behind, for dread of the wrathful sergeant.

It was a long half mile beneath the scorching sun, but the distance to the river shrank mightily while Zack was trying to conjure up something that might convince the Colonel.

O'Flynn loosed his collar to give him leg-room: "Step lively there."

"I'm a hurryin', white folks, I'm a hurryin'."

Smoke was pouring upward from the gunboat; soldiers, donkey-boys, camel-drivers, all kinds of folks, went running every-which-way, but Zack didn't pay 'em no mind. What he saw was Colonel Spottiswoode pacing back and forth on the outskirts of the crowd, and Zack didn't like the emphatic flap-flap-flap of the Colonel's linen suit, nor the aggressive angle of the Colonel's khaki helmet.

"Dar now!" he mumbled. "Done got my business in a jam. I hadn't oughter did de Cunnel dat way. Ain't I jes' like a fool nigger? Gimme a inch an' I'll ketch hell."

At sight of the approaching procession, Colonel strode forward. Zack had never seen him so outraged.

"Zack, where have you been?" The planter stopped, and, "What the devil is that stuff you've got on your face?"

"Lather, suh—ain't quite got through shavin'."

"You—you—get aboard that boat—quick!"

Mere words were so inadequate that the Colonel didn't swear.

"Please, suh, Colonel, please, suh, lemme git my grip-sack."

"It's on board; I brought the baggage myself. Hustle across that stage plank."

"Yas, suh." Like a mule shying at a newspaper, Zack gave the Colonel a wide berth and dodged aboard the nearest barge, while the tricky traders of Khartum gazed mournfully at one another. Their Black Effendi had gone. They saw him go. That was known for a certainty. Why did he play upon them this strange deception? He had outwitted them, and they knew not how—they who boasted openly in the market places that the Ingleezi mind is like unto the clearness of a shallow brook. This man was no Ingleezi. Ben Idris shrugged his shoulders and went his way; Achmet and Hamuda contended together. Before night their odd affairs were marveled over in every bazaar of Khartum.

The prudent Said dared not show himself. He piloted his black master across the upper decks of two barges, climbing from rail to rail, then discreetly disappeared.

Amongst a tangle of baggage on the upper deck, Zack selected the softest bundle of towels, and sat down. He saw the Colonel's baggage piled upon the deck, helter-skelter, pell-mell, with suit cases half open and shirts, neckties, socks sticking out.

"Lawd Gawd! Hommit jes' throwed Cunnel's clo'es in dem grip-sacks, same as mixin' up chicken feed."

When Colonel Spottiswoode reached the upper deck, he found that Old Reliable had repacked two of the satchels, and was opening a third. "Cunnel," Zack glanced up, "I reckin' us better 'scharge dat Hommit nigger. He ain't got sense ernuff to stuff socks in a basket."

The Colonel made a gulping noise in his throat and moved away, while Zack eased himself back on the pile of towels. "Huh!" he said to himself. "'Tain't doin' a nigger no good to have plenty money; don't git no chance to buy nuthin'."