Old Reliable in Africa/Chapter 7

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Sailing away through the boundless day
On a tub of the bluingest blue;
(It stretches from here to the Far-and-Near,
Over the rim of the Wonder-Where,
And back again from the Yonder-There.)
Gulls dip their duds in the trailing suds
We leave on the laundry blue.

THE Olga plowed a straight and purposeful furrow from the Greek port of Piræus towards Alexandria in Egypt. Behind her lay the purple haze of Hellas. Far ahead, across the Mediterranean, stretched a violet field whose tawny edge was Africa. Ripples of peacock blue broke across her bow, and burst into a shimmer of broken opals. Whirling white bubbles settled down in her wake. All around and about, above, below—there was naught but a vast and vacant globe, a fretted ball of water, with this smoking speck—the Olga—in its very middle.

Old Reliable warn't pestered in his mind about the peacock blue, and the violet field troubled him none whatever. It wasn't the vacant globe that bothered Zack. He hungered for the "Hot Cat Eating House," and for somebody who could understand that regular old-timey Unity States talk. From the minute he stepped off that first boat at Naples, Zack couldn't make out a word of what anybody was saying. Then they crossed Italy, and caught another boat. The Colonel said they were going to Greece, but Zack never saw any grease, just a lot of dry yellow hills, and no grass, where folks jabbered a whole lot worse than the Italians. That's where they took a third boat for Afriky Landing.

So here Zack was, on a Russian vessel, crowded with all kinds of people wearing their Mardi Gras clothes, Greeks, Slavs, Polacks, Turks, Russians, Huns, Gippies—squatting around the lower decks and jabbering to beat the band. But, some way or other, Zack couldn't get in on the jabber. He stood amongst them, tongue-tied and dumb; he, the Champeen Argufier of the Hot Cat Eating House, was staked out in the fields of silence, and fenced off from his kind. This gibble-gabble on the upper deck, and the gibberish amidships, made Zack's feet itch to get away. A lonesome black-faced figure, in store -bought clothes, and hat of wide-brimmed gray, he wandered from one chattering group to another, smiling in a neighborly fashion, but silent. Back, and back again he returned to the Colonel's chair.

Colonel Spottiswoode had dropped his magazine on deck, and was gazing across the blue waters. His mind went adventuring with Phœnician galleys that once had sailed these seas, the Carthaginians, the Normans, the fortunes of Cæsar——

"Cunnel," Zack interrupted his thoughts; "Cunnel, don't you want me to do nuthin' fer you?" The Colonel shook his head; he was dreaming, smiling, drowsing. Old Reliable pushed himself along and mumbled, "I wish I wuz back home, sick in bed." If Zack had hold of the plow handles he could at least run a one-sided discussion with the mule.

Up and down the deck he rambled, desolate as a house-dog when the children have gone away, anxious to wag his tail, if somebody would only snap a finger.

At first he did not see a certain man who eyed him intently—one Gregory Lykoff who had caught the Olga at Piræus. How Lykoff smuggled himself out of Russia would always remain an enigma to the police. But he did smuggle himself out, for his affair was urgent. The government had captured a key to their secret cipher, and the Terrorists had to change it. Lykoff carried the new key which was to put them again in communication with comrades throughout the world. Immaculate, languid-looking, wearing a fastidious black mustache, with hands of girlish softness, nobody would pick Lykoff for a man who had toiled in Siberian mines, and now dared a second exile. That was fifteen years ago; and to-day Gregory Lykoff was only thirty-one. It behooved him to be cautious. In the first place he should have avoided any steamer which, like the Olga, flew the Russian flag. But Guinea Ryan, the American boiler-maker, brought him his imperative order, and he must sail at once to Alexandria. Even then Lykoff would never have trusted himself on board the Olga if he could have foreseen that the implacable Gargarin—known as the "Bloodhound"—and his shrewdest assistant, would climb the Olga's companionway five minutes before she sailed. It was then no surprise for Lykoff to find Gargarin assigned to him as a cabin-mate. So Lykoff grimly determined to merit the tribute which his government paid so young a man.

In St. Petersburg many intercepted letters lay waiting for this key before they could be read by the police; and the lives of many comrades depended upon him. The young Russian had been in serious situations before, and a French novel in his lap did not distract his attention from the Bloodhound, who leaned against a life-boat with eyes upon the sea. Gargarin was never squeamish in his methods, and Lykoff knew that he would be searched before their arrival at Alexandria—baggage, cabin, and person—that was inevitable. Lykoff also realized that his government wanted the key rather than himself. Gargarin on his part felt sure that Lykoff would carry that key in such a way as to be instantly destroyed—which had happened in several bunglesome arrests. Manifestly Lykoff could not take it ashore, even if he were permitted to leave the ship, which was not likely. Neither could he trust Guinea Ryan—the American boiler-maker being also under strict surveillance. He must get an unsuspected man. From the moment Lykoff first set eyes on Colonel Spottiswoode he saw that here was a man who could help, but who would not. No amount of persuasion or money—neither of which Lykoff lacked—could reach such men. But the black? the negro? An inspiration! Lykoff had lived in the United States and had become somewhat familiar with Southern negroes. This black servant would follow his master ashore, and pass unchallenged. Once ashore it might be very easy for himself, or friends, to reclaim his priceless scrap of paper. So Gregory Lykoff Terrorist, assassin, patriot, what you please—sat placidly in his chair, and made up his mind to use the services of Old Reliable.

At first it scared Zack shaky in the knees, the abruptness with which that snappy-eyed white man followed him into his cabin and locked the door. There was a command in Lykoff's gesture which kept the negro from making an outcry. "Your name is Zack?" he asked.

"Yas, suh, but ev'ybody, white an' black, calls me 'Ole Reliable'." Zack's smile was feeble, his intentions strong.

"Zack is enough; that's easier. Do you want a hundred dollars?" which reassured Zack mightily; the man talked United-States-talking; he said dollars instead of these other words which Zack could not understand; so the negro replied instantly and truthfully, "Yas, suh, I'd love to git a hundred dollars."

"You are going ashore with the Colonel?" the white man said.

"Sholy, sholy; Cunnel won't lemme git two foot out o' his sight. Cunnel ain't able to do nothin' fer hisself."

"Very good; I want to send a letter ashore. It is important. Here it is, rolled in this capsule. You must deliver it to the man who will come to you and say, 'Zack,' not another single word, just 'Zack.' He will hand you the other ten sovereigns when you give him the capsule; here is ten now."

It was no dream—that white man put ten gold pieces into Zack's hand, careless-like, same as if 'twas nothing but buttons—more money than Zack had seen since Drif quit fighting.

The negro grinned for better acquaintance sake, "Mister how come you knowed so good my name was Zack?"

"I heard the Colonel call you 'Zack'."

"Huh! You knows de Cunnel?" Zack brightened up for extended conversation,

"I heard you call him Colonel—don't interrupt me." Lykoff spoke peremptorily—Zack loved to hear a white man talk like he meant it. Suddenly Lykoff stopped; he heard a step in the passage, a knock on the door. There was an armor in the cabin for clothes to be hung—Lykoff hid himself inside, and closed it as Zack opened the cabin door in answer to a voice outside, calling, "Zack, where are my glasses?"—it was the Colonel's voice.

"I'll git 'em in a minute, Cunnel." The steps passed on.

Lykoff reappeared from the armor and took out a cigar, a peculiar cigar with a peculiar band. In deep thought he removed the band; it fell to the floor. "Now, Zack," he asked, "do you understand me perfectly?"

"Yas, suh, I sho do."

"You will keep beside your master, and never leave him?"

"Leave Cunnel? dat I won't. Who else he got to take keer o' him?"

"Very good—now in case anybody tries to get that capsule away from you"—Zack began to show the whites of his eyes—"or if any accident happens, you must swallow it."

Zack gasped, "Mister, dis here stuff ain't pizen?"

"It will not hurt you. I hid it in that capsule so I could swallow it myself if necessary. Or you can throw it into the sea; it will sink."

"Well, Mister, ef it's jes de same wid you, I'll chunk it in de water."

"Very good—but only in extremity. One more thing, you must not look at me, must not speak to me. You have never seen me before. Remember that." This tickled Old Reliable into a wink and a grin. He loved mystery; he gloried in lodge work; he loved the secret grips and signs and pass-words which ignorant niggers didn't know.

"Now tell me exactly what you are to do." Lykoff put him through his catechism. Old Reliable reeled it off like a parrot, "Give dis here pill to de man what calls me 'Zack.' An' I gits ten mo' o' dese. Ef anybody ack like he aims to take it away from me, jes drap it in de water. An' I ain't got to let on like I knows you."

"Very good." As Lykoff came, so Lykoff went, silently and without warning. He did not glance from the door to see if he were spied upon. He must take a chance. This left old Zack standing alone in his cabin, staring from the ten gold pieces to the capsule.

"Huh! dat white man cornduck hisself mighty brief about dis pill." Zack tested each sovereign with his teeth, to see if they were good, stuffed them deep in his breeches pockets, and put the capsule inside his vest. Still in a daze he picked up the cigar band which Lykoff had dropped to the floor and slipped it on his finger as though it were a ring.

When Old Reliable passed through the smoking room, Lykoff and the Bloodhound were taking their coffee together, and Lykoff felt a sudden chill to see his green-gold cigar band on the negro's finger. Of course the Bloodhound also noticed it. Neither man batted an eye. A few minutes later Gargarin examined the steward's stock of cigars. There were none to match the green-gold band; none amongst the various passengers—the American smoked a distinctly American brand. So Gargarin wanted to know how Zack got that cigar band, and Lykoff felt that he must account for it. Lykoff waited his chance until the Colonel and Zack were standing at the rail. Old Zack seemed restless with responsibility, glancing all around him, and missing nothing. Crafty Lykoff led the Bloodhound to their windward, and casually dropped the band from an other cigar. The wind bowled it towards Old Reliable. As Lykoff hoped, the negro saw it coming, stooped and picked up the glittering bit of paper. Lykoff said nothing. Gargarin said nothing. Zack's possession of the cigar band was accounted for.

Less than an hour afterwards the bearer of that secret cipher discovered that he had been none too quick in shifting it to other hands. At lunch he was taken violently ill and carried fainting from the table. The ship's surgeon administered certain medicines; Lykoff lapsed into unconsciousness. When he awaked next morning in the hospital, he wore a strange pair of pajamas, his clothing being folded on a chair—searched in every pocket and seam. Not a crevice in his cabin had been overlooked; even the soles of his shoes were ripped apart, his purse unstitched—Gargarin's scrutiny had been thorough.

"Luck's agin me," Old Reliable mused when his Russian ally showed himself on deck; "dar's de onliest white folks what kin talk my sort o' an' ain't 'lowed to say nothin' to him."