Old Reliable in Africa/Chapter 23

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CHAPTER XXIII

THE HAREM LADY

THE gunboat Zafir went chug-chugging up the White Nile, pushing five barges against the muddy current. Her tow was set up like ten-pins, one at the peak, then two and two behind. Between the last two barges the Zafir buried her prow and shoved blindly.

Zack Foster, Effendi, was sitting on a box at the gun-boat's rail. Lyttleton Bey and McDonald Bimbashi lounged in canvas chairs; Colonel Spottiswoode gazed upon the monotonous stretches of river.

From Zack's seat he could look down upon the rear of the servant's barge, where their cooking was being done. Forward, below deck, the same barge was loaded with camels and donkeys. Upstairs the servants slept and did the washing. Mahomet, Fudl, Said and the others had stretched their clothes lines, from which many a linen suit was flapping. But Zack kept his fascinated eyes upon the donkeys. "Cunnel," he asked, "what you reckin' dem little gray mules costs—fer a nigger?"

"You needn't buy a donkey," the Colonel snapped; "we have plenty of them. Major Lyttleton will furnish you one."

Zack looked down upon the donkey pen and shook his head, "Cunnel, ef it's jes' de same wid you, I'd heap ruther buy me one fer my own self. You knows how 'tis when white folks furnishes a nigger wid a mule. Dey keeps a blim-blammin' at him to plow dat mule, and not be ridin' dat mule all night."

"If you want a donkey, just pick him out and Major Lyttleton will——"

Again Zack shook his head. "I don't crave none o' dem. I kinder took a likin' to one little feller what's all trimmed up—over yonder on dat yother barge."

Colonel Spottiswoode glared straight at Zack, glared straight through Zack; then the Colonel smiled, and Old Reliable began to get fidgety. "Zack, you better keep away from those women on that other barge. I know you're not going over there forty times a day to visit a donkey."

Zack grinned sheepishly, like he always did when Colonel Spottiswoode read his mind. As their conversation was getting too personal, Zack reached around for his helmet, and vanished down the companionway.

Said, who waited at the foot of the steps, fell in behind without a word, while Zack crossed to the left-hand barge and ostentatiously displayed himself amongst the huddle of donkeys. He wanted the Colonel to see him; his white helmet bobbed about here and there, in plain sight, until the Colonel forgot about it. Then Zack disappeared. In the dimness of the gunboat's boiler-deck, he wheeled and confronted Said: "Git back, nigger. I'm plum wore out wid you taggin' 'atter me. Git back, an' listen when I makes my holler."

Said salaamed to the ground, and effaced himself. Old Reliable strutted off, intent upon philandering affairs of such a nature that they could best be conducted without an interpreter.

Above stairs Lyttleton turned languidly in his chair; then his eyes twinkled with that concentrated pucker about their corners which comes of long staring into the desert. "Colonel, your black man has gone back to those women; he'll get himself into trouble." As he spoke, Lyttleton drew the American to the right-hand rail from which they could see the rear end of the next barge. There sat Old Reliable, in khaki suit and gorgeous helmet, seated radiantly amongst a group of kneeling women, who seemed to be making batter-cakes.

"Those women belong to the Sultan of Bong," Lyttleton explained. "He's got his harem upstairs—see that space enclosed with matting. Better pull up your black man, and warn him to keep away."

Colonel Spottiswoode laughed. "That's a kitchen, isn't it? Those are cook women? You might as well order a fly to keep away from the molasses."

Lyttleton shrugged his shoulders. "He'll get into the deuce of a muss." The white men moved back to their chairs, and fell silent as they watched the river slipping by, which left Old Reliable in peace amongst the ladies of the Sultan's harem.

Zack could not talk to the woman—the youngest woman with the smile. He could only drape his legs over a sack of onions and grin. Neither could the women talk to him, but it just fell in Zack's mind that she wanted to. "Dar now!" he chuckled; "ef I can't talk an' she can't talk back, us sho' ain't gwine to fuss an' fall out."

Although laboring under these dumb disadvantages, Old Reliable had a winning way with cook ladies, and a rabbit-foot for making himself welcome in anybody's kitchen. The youngest woman nodded her head, parted her lips, and showed very white teeth, swaying back and forth as she ground the dhurra corn, her muscles slip ping beneath the glistening skin of her back. Zack viewed the entire operation; there were few mysteries about this cook-lady, who wore nothing whatever above her waist, except a dazzle of teeth—and a necklace. She knelt before a slab of stone, much hollowed by use, grinding dhurra with another stone. "Jes' like scrubbin' clo'es on a washboard," Zack remarked to himself. Time and again she moistened the mushy mess, pushed it back to the top of the slab, then rubbed it slowly down again. While thus engaged she always rested back upon her heels, and smiled at Zack. Old Reliable made shift to take off his helmet and fumble at the ribbons; he disliked to embarrass a lady by staring at her—a lady who had never eaten of the apple. A piece of frazzled cloth around her hips momentarily threatened to slip off, which kept Zack's nerves on the ragged edge. But the woman always tightened it in the nick of time, and smiled. At these crucial moments Zack turned away and regarded the landscape. "Seliny's sho' gwine to snort at dis—ef I tells her."

Presently the woman rose, leaned over the stern of the barge, and drew a bucket of water. Zack sprang gallantly to her side—"Lemme do dat, lemme do dat."

Immediately four other women, old and withered, glanced up from their tasks. Then all of an instant they ceased smiling; their lips shut and their teeth vanished—simultaneously as a string of electric lights that are switched off. They stared at Zack for one instant, looked over their shoulders for another instant, then doggedly pursued their work. Being so engrossed with the damsel of the smile, Old Reliable failed to observe a colossal Golo negro who sneaked down the narrow passageway between the gunboat and the barge, and halted at the comer of the woodpile. There he stood, glowering at Zack, and touched his knife significantly—which shut up the women and switched off their smiles.

If Zack had seen that Golo, he might not have rested so nonchalantly upon his sack of onions; he would have gone straight to the Colonel. The Golo's head was shaven smooth, except for a space the size of a biscuit, where frizzles grew in a bunch. Zack already knew him as the donkey-keeper, and called him "Top-Knot," it being perfectly safe to call him anything in English.

Top-Knot did not utter a syllable with his lips, but his fierce eyes said a plenty. He eyed Zack, then grudgingly put back his knife into its sheath. Old Reliable held his head debonnairely to one side, listening to the twang of a courbee and the chatter of women's voices that came down through the cubby hole above his head.

"Huh!" he sneered; "dat's a mighty po' banjo picker. Wonder who dat is a playin'?" Zack wondered and wondered until his curiosity could stand it no longer; then he sauntered carelessly to the foot of the ladder. The moment he took hold of the rail all five women bounded up and shook their heads excitedly.

They pointed upward through the black cubby hole, and shook their heads more violently than ever. The Black Effendi must not go upstairs.

"How come I mustn't go up dar? Ain't dis a free steamboat? Ain't I fust class? Can't I go wharever I 'zires to go?"

All of which whetted Zack's eagerness to see what lay beyond the cubby hole. He kept looking upward, and kept making a bluff that he was going anyhow. Perhaps he meant to go, perhaps he only enjoyed the abject terror upon those women's faces. Then Zack changed his mind. Through the cubby hole a black face scowled down upon him and vanished. Then the hole darkened; a pair of stout black legs appeared and began descending the ladder. These legs were so knotty and muscular that they evidently belonged to a man. So Zack prepared to leave.