Old Reliable in Africa/Chapter 24

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CHAPTER XXIV

THE MOST IMPORTANT DONKEY

WHEN that pair of massive legs began to descend backwards, out of the Sultan's harem, Zack concluded to arrive away from there. He stretched himself and clapped his hands "Whar he? Side!" Said knew better than to be out of hearing; Said also knew better than to venture upon that sanctified section of the barge. So the Dongalawi came running across the next gunboat and halted at the rail—"Effendi."

"Side," his master called, "meet me round de corner, whar dat donkey's at."

And Old Reliable promenaded away, jingling the coins in his pocket, and glancing negligently over his shoulder to note the white-eyed admiration of those ladies. He marched off grandly, but he fetched up against a wood pile which could not be passed without climbing on hands and knees. This would be undignified, and he hated to go back amongst the women, thereby spoiling the majesty of his exit. So Zack began worming his way around the outer gunwale of the barge, where a false step would drop him into the Nile. By clinging to the ends of the sticks, he contrived to hang on. "Lordee," he gasped to himself, "ef one o' dese sticks wuz to pull out it would be 'So long, Mary,' wid Zack." After testing each stick before he risked his precious weight, Old Reliable drew a long breath when Said met him at the open space where that Donkey of Great Importance had his quarters. Anybody could see that it was a Most Important Donkey. Top-Knot kept him shiny, shaven like a gentleman, with delicate designs clipped along his legs and back. Effusively Top-Knot welcomed the Black Effendi, with a smirk upon his face—and a knife up his sleeve. Zack sized up the smirk as being in recognition of various cigar stumps, a certain piaster, and future hopes. If he had sized up the knife, Zack wouldn't have remained. The Donkey of Great Importance was doing his exercise across deck, between top-heavy stacks of wood, where Old Reliable followed, patting the sleek hide, stroking the slender legs, and listening to the click-clack, click-clack of his trim little hoofs.

"Side," he whispered, "ax dat feller how much do he charge fer dis here donkey."

As a matter of fact, Said and the Golo could not understand a syllable of each other's jabber, but Said never let his master suspect, for Said would cast no aspersions upon his own usefulness. "You no can buy," he protested; "this donkey is of the Sultan."

"Sulky nothin! All donkeys is mo' or less quiet. Dey loves to study."

"No-no, la, la; he is of the Sultan—you no can buy la, la!"

"He ain't sulky; he's gentle an' kind. I'm gwine to buy dis donkey ef I wants to. I got plenty money."

Suddenly Top-Knot rose and towered above them; he gripped Said by the arm, spoke guttural words and pointed. Said wheeled, gazed, snatched Zack's sleeve, and began pulling his master away—'Come, Excellency, come!"

"What fer?"

"The Sultan, he come—he not glad if you be here."

Self-respect demanded a certain show of resistance. "Look here, nigger! I ain't got my mind sot on no runnin'—not yit." And yet, despite all protests, Said and Top-Knot hustled the Black Effendi out of sight, behind the wood-pile. Then Top-Knot ran back to his post, while Zack peeped around the wood, and saw Top-Knot on his knees butting his head against the planks before the Sultan.

"Huh! He ain't nothin' 'cept a kinky-headed nigger, an' bare-footed at dat! Side, what make you ack so skeery? Dat ain't no constable." Zack made a feint at returning, but Said, by main strength, dragged him to the gunboat.

From a safer position Zack measured the Sultan of Bong—a nappy-headed black man, bare-foot, bare-headed, in shirt and drawers—who nevertheless owned the Most Important Donkey, who owned Top-Knot, and all those women on the barge.

Grumbling and mouthing, Old Reliable found Colonel Spottiswoode on the upper deck observing the preparations for their landing at a wood-yard. With much puffing, much rattling of old machinery and belching of smoke, the gunboat shoved her starboard barge against the shore. Out of the din Old Zack leaned over the rail and shouted, "Dar now! Rouster done fell overbode." Shrieking black people ran from among the corded piles of wood and crowded to the shore.

"Look yonder, Cunnel! Look yonder!"

They saw a solitary Arab sailorman, who yelled and struggled in the water, kicking about him frantically. Then four other splashes came in quick succession, as four other Arabs sprang from the boat, and five men battled with the current. All of them seemed to flounder and scream instead of swimming. Two of them carried sticks with which they belabored the water. Flurrying, splashing, in a compact group, all five scrambled out of the river together. Their erratic behavior puzzled the Colonel, who turned to Lyttleton.

"That's to frighten the crocks," Lyttleton explained; "if the first sailorman had tried to swim quietly, a crocodile might have got him. But the crock's an arrant coward. He won't attack two men; and he always runs from a noise. So if one man falls overboard, others jump in and make a deuce of a row."

"Pretty good scheme," commented the Colonel.

"Yes," said Lyttleton; "but no man would have dared jump in at Timshi Khor, where crocodiles are thicker than minnows. Natives believe that the demon crock lives at Timshi. If a man falls overboard they let the demon get him. We'll reach Timshi Khor after a bit."

Some little distance above, after the Zafir chugged on from the wood-yard, the Nile divided, flowing along both sides of a low island. On the left bank a slough emptied into the river. Lyttleton caught the Colonel's arm, and pointed with his pipe to a currentless depression full of water. "There is Timshi Khor," he said, and Colonel Spottiswoode leveled his glass to get a better view.

"This looks like shallow water," the Colonel remarked, with an eye experienced in judging the Mississippi River. And a bare hundred yards farther his words proved true.

Their forward barge had come nearly opposite the mouth of Timshi Khor when they felt a shock, an upheaval below.

"Aground again!" Lyttleton exclaimed.

All five barges rubbed violently against one another, creaked, groaned and threatened to break apart. The engines stopped; a powerful current swung the flotilla around. The paddles reversed, and started again. Something snapped, then everything stopped. It was all over, and they were aground—solid as a church.

Lyttleton bounded down the companionway, saying things in Arabic, vitriolic, vicious, untranslatable things; his words sizzled and burned blue, like a pot of sulphur. He reappeared on deck, still swearing in that copious tongue, with an occasional English invective, sincere but vapid.

"Don't mind me," suggested the Colonel; "spit it out of your system."

"Dammit, sir," the Britisher roared; "I was trying to swear in English for your benefit—out of respect to you, sir. But after using Arabic, English is like dummy-swearing, in a sign language." Then Lyttleton broke down and laughed, "Oh, well, we can pepper away at the hippos and crocks. Plenty of 'em here."

Long after the hubbub had quieted Old Reliable poked his wooly head above the companionway, having first taken the precaution to remove his helmet. He could see that the white folks were busy talking, and not studying about him. So he sneaked downstairs, took a private short cut to the Sultan's barge, and resumed his nonchalant seat upon the sack of onions, with a pleasant "Good evenin', ladies."

Not a woman looked up. Even the youngest girl kept steadfastly to her grinding; there was no gleam of teeth, no smile; nothing but silence. Zack squirmed around, and grinned at each in rotation. Not a woman noticed him. Something must have happened since his last visit.

The oldest hag kept glancing over her shoulder. Zack had no eyes for hags; therefore, he neglected to follow the woman's apprehension to where Top-Knot crouched behind the wood-pile. One sight of Top-Knot would have changed the whole map of Europe—and more instantly have changed Zack's present location. As he didn't see Top-Knot he only chuckled to himself. Many a cook woman had refused to notice him when he first bowed himself into her kitchen; but Zack could out-talk the best of them, and he always left the kitchen with a smacky taste in his mouth. Huffiness of cook women didn't pester Zack. He grinned his most propitiatory grin, flirted out a white silk handkerchief with red border, and rearranged it to a nicety in his top pocket. Nobody encored him. The youngest woman kept on grinding. Her fringy hair shook warningly. Zack didn't say a word to anybody, except what he said to himself. He quietly produced a small round mirror. The production was not spectacular. It was devoid of tableaux and red lights—modestly produced, as if for private purposes with which the general public had no concern. Drawing himself back upon the onion sack, he made a detailed inspection of his features. When Zack quit noticing the women, the women began noticing him, especially that shriveled baker-woman who was nearest to his knee. Her wrinkled countenance was no bigger than a midget's, flabby, like a punctured football; and a virtuous antiquity protected her from suspicion.

Zack negligently dropped his hand, and held the mirror where she could view herself. Presently she stopped work; Zack allowed her to take the mirror. Two other crones pounded their dhurra by fits and starts, while the trinket began to pass secretly from hand to hand. The young est woman kept rubbing, grinding, and toiling. Only once she glanced over her shoulder—and was lost. A snake-like arm reached out to her with Zack's shining temptation. In the marvel of her first mirror the eternal savage feminine forgot Top-Knot's warning, forgot everything, and sat back upon her heels. In an ecstasy she brought the glass closer and closer, kissed her own reflection, and laughed aloud.

The psychological moment had arrived for Old Reliable to speak: "You done smeared dat lookin' glass till you can't see nothin'. Lemme wipe it." Jerking out his hankerchief, he wiped the mirror and handed it back again. The woman grimaced at herself, then gave a merry little smile to Zack.

Again the Sultan's black legs began descending the ladder. Nobody saw him. Top-Knot, with glittering eyes, and the knife in his hand, came crawling like a serpent across the stack of wood. Top-Knot didn't see the Sultan; he saw nothing but Zack and that youngest woman nodding happily at each other. If Top-Knot had looked where he was going, he might not have pulled down a cord or so of wood. But he did pull down the wood, like an earthquake. Everybody jumped up. The youngest woman saw Top-Knot staggering to regain his footing; she screamed, dropped her mirror into the river and started to run. But when she saw the Sultan stepping down from his ladder, she fell to her knees and furiously attacked the dhurra. Things whirled round so swift that Old Reliable got a swimming in the head. He wasn't conscious of having popped up, like a Jack-in-the-Box, and didn't know what to do until he saw Top-Knot coming with the Golo who looked bigger than a skinned mule. Then Zack knew precisely what he wanted to do. But he couldn't go where he wanted because Top-Knot stood between him and the place where the Colonel was. Being already on his feet, Zack began to move, not rapidly, but with discretion—and not towards the man with the knife. Zack moved definitely and gathered speed. He made a perfectly quiet getaway, rounded the rear end of the barge, climbed outside the gunwale, and groped his way along, clinging tooth and toe-nail to the protruding ends of the wood. The Nile flowed beneath him and the flash of a Golo knife made him seasick. Luckily the boats were aground and still. Zack scrambled on, with eyes to the rear, where the black face of the Sultan scowled after him. Because of his looking backward, he failed to see the donkey. The Most Important Donkey had taken advantage of Top-Knot's absence and came squeezing along the same ledge, nibbling at a bunch of papyrus grass that had lodged against the barge, and drifted an inch or so every time the donkey touched it. Any other beast would have given way to a colored gentleman in such a hurry; but this particular donkey was accustomed to having people give way to him. They collided; Zack yelled, but had no time to stop and argue with a donkey. Being a ground-hog case, he grabbed the first thing he could catch hold on to swing himself around. The first thing happened to be a stick which proved to be no stick at all, nothing but a chunk that pulled out in his hand. The wood-pile toppled on the donkey. That's how the Most Important Donkey went overboard, immediately prior to Zack. For one nerve-racking instant Old Reliable balanced himself on the gunwale after the fashion of a man who is about to dive. Then he dived because he couldn't help it, and yelled for the same reason.