Old Reliable in Africa/Chapter 25

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CHAPTER XXV

THE SULTAN'S GIFT

THREE white men heard Zack's yell as he went overboard at the dreaded Timshi Khor. Three white men rushed to that side of the gunboat and saw the Sultan of Bong capering in bare feet, pointing to his Most Important Donkey, and shouting for every one of his people to jump in. Never a man jumped. The Sultan raged and threatened; his terrified servants dodged back to hide in the barges.

"What's the matter?" Colonel Spottiswoode asked.

"All peoples 'fraid crocodiles. Black Effendi he jump in for donkey," Mahomet Mansour rushed up and explained.

"Yonder's Zack's helmet." The first thing that Colonel Spottiswoode recognized was Zack's cupola with blue polka dots which had fallen into a swift eddy. Like a fishing bob, with draggled streamers, it went circling around. "There's Zack! there's Zack!" the Colonel shouted. "Throw him a rope, throw him a rope."

Zack sputtered the water from his mouth. "Dat's all right, Cunnel; I kin swim out."

Two hundred pairs of eyes were watching Zack as he grabbed the donkey's halter and let the current drift them past the gunboat, whose wheels were still. Everybody yelled, everybody threw sticks into the water. But no Arab dared to venture. The donkey exhibited characteristic composure, marking time until he drifted below the wheels, then Zack personally conducted him towards the shore.

"Look!" Lyttleton exclaimed, and gripped the Colonel's arm. A black shape—a crocodile—rose from the water; the terrific jaws snapped, and Zack's helmet disappeared in a flurry. Lyttleton snatched his rifle and fired shot after shot—all around Zack, covering the swimmer's retreat by a picket line of bullets. Zack glanced up prayerfully, with white eyes, "Hol' on, white folks! Quit shootin', fer Gawd's sake." He swam like a grass-hopper, and never let go the donkey's halter until each had dragged out the other. Thereupon the Most Important Donkey stopped to nibble at a tuft of grass. Zack jerked him roughly. "Come 'long, fool! You ain't got sense 'nuff to git out o' nobody's way."

The excited McDonald ran downstairs, through the intervening barge, and dashed across the narrow plank to shore, congratulating Zack with outstretched hands. "That took nerve, old chap; took nerve, I'm sure, to jump in at Timshi. Not a black, nor an Arab, dared follow you."

"Yas suh, yas suh. Didn't none of 'em come in, but I warn't gwine to let dis donkey git drownded."

After McDonald a string of Arabs, sailormen, and Golo people swarmed out of the flotilla like ants. They surrounded Zack, they hugged one another, chattering and jubilating over the recovered donkey. Top-Knot was already wiping the water from his neglected beast, when the Sultan approached, and the reverent crowd made way. The Sultan patted his favorite, scowled, and muttered one single word to Top-Knot—a word which made the big negro shudder from head to foot. All other Golos sneaked behind the crowd.

The Despot of Bong praised Zack and exulted himself into a generous humor. Although Zack tilted his head to one side and listened he couldn't understand a word, but he knew the Sultan was orating mighty soft and nice. Said hopped in and out amongst the people, like a rabbit in a cane-brake, until he squatted beside an Araba sailorman who understood the Golo tongue. Then he hopped back and whispered glad tidings to his master: "Sultan say he give you one very good present bimeby, bimeby."

"Who's got my hat? Go git my hat, Side." Said glanced at the river, and shivered.

"The crock got your hat," laughed McDonald, pointing to the fragments of a once happy helmet which circled slowly round in the eddy. Old Reliable stared, then went and stood mournfully at the water's edge: "Dar now! Ain't dat a shame?"

"Plenty of crocks in there. Lucky they didn't get you," McDonald answered cheerfully.

"Sumpin' 'nother done bust my hat."

Everybody stood aside while the dripping savior of the Sultan's donkey marched back to the gunboat.

"Zack!" the Colonel greeted him; "didn't you know any better than to jump in that water? It's full of crocodiles."

"What is crocodiles, Cunnel?"

"They're like alligators—great big alligators."

"Lawd Gawd, Cunnel, dat donkey jumped in fust, an'——" Old Reliable shut up when Major Lyttleton thrust his burly shoulders through the companion-way and warned him.

"Fix yourself, old man; they're coming after you. Hear that drum?"

The rapid beating of an African drum uprose from the Sultan's barge; Zack's knees knocked to gether. He edged closer to the Colonel, and began dripping in a new puddle.

"Mister Lyttleton, what make you say dey's comin' atter me? I ain't did nothin' to nobody." Zack's mind flashed back to the gleam of a knife, and a red-eyed negro with frizzles on top of his head. Lyttleton kept smiling, a smile more serious than tears. When the Colonel smiled, Zack knew that everything was all right, but this British smile took the stiffening out of his legs. Then the Major laughed, which was worse: "Colonel Spottiswoode, change your kit—frock coat—top hat, something impressive. McDonald, regulation togs for you. Dress parade on deck to receive envoys from the Sultan of Bong."

McDonald saluted rigidly; orders were orders and nothing more.

Then Lyttleton turned upon Zack—Lyttleton was not a humorous person. "Mr. Honorable Black Effendi, it pleases the Sultan of Bong to show his gratitude. He will dispatch his royal messengers to make you a gift."

"Yas suh, dat's all right, suh." Zack glanced at the Colonel for help, and the Colonel inquired, "What do you mean, Lyttleton?"

"Your man has been mentioned for distinguished gallantry—Victoria Cross affair. He rescued the Highly Serene Donkey, which the Sirdar presented to the Sultan—in exchange for a tract of land about the size of Wales. His Majesty now desires to send a 'gift."

"Zack, do you understand that?" Spottiswoode turned and asked.

"Yas suh, Cunnel, yas suh. Side specify a lot o' stuff like dat; but Lordee, Cunnel, I never pays no 'tention to nigger news."

"The Sultan is going to give you a present."

"Who? You mean dat kinky-headed nigger over yonder, wid dem short panties on? Huh!"

"Yes. He's a Big Ike."

"I don't care how big he is, he ain't got nothin' what fits me." But Old Reliable began to take notice, "What you reckin he gwine to gimme?"

"Can't tell yet. Your present hasn't come off the Christmas tree. Maybe it'll be a red-faced monkey, or a giraffe."

Zack turned away in disgust. "Cunnel, you-all oughter be 'shamed, makin' pleasure wid me."

The stolid McDonald had already gone to his cabin for the official raiment. Lyttleton paused a moment, laughed at Zack's blank face, and added, "Maybe, he'll send you a nice fat slave."

"Mister, what you reckin' I could do wid a lazy nigger hangin' on to me, eatin' his head off?"

Lyttleton raised his hand, "Sh-sh! Hear the music? Ambassadors are mustering on the Sultan's barge! Hurry up, Zack! Put on your dry clothes—quick."

They were none too quick. Lyttleton Bey of the Anglo-Egyptian service wheeled into a commanding position at the head of the companionway—hand on hilt, helmet strap under chin, and the medals of seven wars glittering across his breast. McDonald Bimbashi, none the less erect and solemn, flanked his left, while Colonel Spottiswoode laughed: "I will abide at thy right side—in the whitest of white linens."

"Try to make a show before these people," Lyttleton whispered. "They love it."

Zack likewise had on linens, inherited from the Colonel, but he persisted in skirmishing to the rear. The way those white folks kept nudging each other was enough to make any negro skittish. "Here, Zack," Lyttleton ordered, "step forward and stand fast."

Zack inched forward and stood tolerably fast. He heard the thump, thump of that Golo drum, and the plunk, plunk, plunk of the courbee; but it didn't sound good to him. Zack felt dubious about the whole performance. In fact he had a hunch that something was about to happen, and his questioning face shifted like a full black moon from one gentleman to another.

The Golos were coming, and Zack felt himself slipping. First of all, the youngest woman came up the companionway, head and naked shoulders, and gleaming teeth. She wore a kirtle of loose cords that dangled nearly to her knees, and greasy hair that dangled to her shoulders. Besides that she wore a necklace—and a smile. When Zack glimpsed Top-Knot, he felt reasonably sure that all blood had been wiped off the moon. Top-Knot had been forgiven; his face radiated peace and good will. That's what encouraged Zack. But he saw nothing in their hands which resembled a present. None of those negroes could have concealed a present in his pocket—for nakedly obvious reasons. "Huh! Dey ain't got nary present; I knowed dem niggers wuz foolin' de white folks."

The drum beat and the courbee twanged. The Golo envoys salaamed. The interpreter stepped forward, pointed proudly to the woman, and began his Arabic harangue. Lyttleton listened with grave attention, but Zack wasn't paying 'em no mind. That youngest woman kept smiling at him, black, statuesque, and happy. Top-Knot smiled, the Golos smiled; it was certainly up to Zack to smile back. He did so. The interpreter ended with a great flourish; Lyttleton turned and looked at Zack. "Whar's my present?" Zack asked. Lyttleton shook his head, and led the Colonel apart to whisper,

"The sultan says that one of his women has found favor in the Black Effendi's eyes, so he sends her to him as a royal gift."

"The hell he does."

Lyttleton shrugged his shoulders—"What are we going to do with her?"

"Do with her? We're going to do without her! Look here, Major Lyttleton, Zack's more trouble to me now than a teething baby. Fire that woman back to the Sultan, with my compliments."

"That is awkward, very awkward, my dear Spottiswoode—deucedly awkward. His Majesty's Government has strong reasons for being friends with this particular Sultan."

"Sorry, Major. You square it with the Sultan, and I'll attend to Zack's case. Come here, Zack!"

"Yas suh."

Colonel Spottiswoode led Zack to the rail where the negro stood shuffling his feet and looking down upon the muddy waters. Then the Colonel spoke vigorously with arm uplifted in emphatic gestures; then he stopped short; his arm fell. Zack's face had turned ashen; his white eyes bulged; he clutched at the post to keep from falling. Not forty feet away in the very track along which he had swum with the donkey, the gigantic head of a hippopotamus arose. The mouth of the great beast yawned wide open—inconceivably wide open. Sweat burst from Zack's forehead as he stared down that long red gullet, with a fence of stone teeth in front. Then the negro gasped and slipped to the floor, like a wilted dish-rag.

The Colonel knelt quickly and caught his head. "What's the matter? Sunstroke?"

With long, trembling finger Old Reliable pointed to a whirlpool where that black Thing had disappeared. "Naw suh, Cunnel—yonder's one o' dem crocks. Please suh, gimme a drink o' whiskey. I feels mighty sick."

While Zack moaned in the cabin, Lyttleton searched his kit for a return present to give the Sultan; then followed the Golo delegation to square His Majesty's Government with the Despot of Bong.