Giles, Lord Ponsonby – “In Darker Africa”

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October 10, 2012 by jamesessj

Chapter V – Alachem

The disguise was imperfect. What knowledge I possessed of the appearance of the Turkish race was limited to illustrations in The Daily Telegraph, and though I am given to understand they adhere to the strictest rules of scientific evidence, my own memory was not necessarily to be trusted — not as regards a single representation of a single pasha I had seen some twelve years previously. Come to think of it, the man in the drawing may not even have been Turkish. He may have been Punjabi.

Regardless, our die was cast, Botuna’s and mine. He was costumed in a fairly faithful reproduction of the illustration, with a great folded turban on his head and a billowing robe draped o’er his shoulders and a pair of false whiskers on his cheeks. From river mud we had fashioned a kind of paste, light brown in color, which we had applied to Botuna’s face, neck, chest, hands, forearms, and feet, any section of his skin likely to be seen. I could not recall the exact shade of The Illustrated Turk’s pigmentation, but definitively it was not so dark as Botuna’s natural near-black. The paste was a clumsy solution — at close range it could have been mistaken for a disfiguring condition of the epidermis — but it, like the remainder of his camouflage, would have to do. We were not in the West End. We were in central Africa.

*   *   *

My plan was dependent on this:  that the Arab Bin Selem had not had the acquaintance of the man who was to marry his eldest daughter — the man he’d referred to as “the Turk” — he had not the Turk’s acquaintance in the flesh. What business I had in staking our very lives on such a questionable assumption, I cannot say; other than that it did not seem like a bad idea at the time. On the contrary, it seemed a veritable brainstorm.

And anyhow, I had promised Botuna to help him win the hand of Bin Selem’s firstborn daughter Shalima, and with the wedding mere days away, there was no time to concoct a more feasible, more sensible, more prone to succeed, plan. If Bin Selem had met the Turk, our fates were sealed as surely as Oedipus’. But everyone goes sometime, do they not? Not at the hands of a sadistic Arab slave trader, granted, a man whose methods of dispatching rivals and disappointments had inspired numerous ballads, couplets, and limericks, but go they do.

I had instructed Botuna to let me do the talking. Or, the translating. He could babble on in whatever language he pleased, from his native Swahili to the Babelian tongues of a snake-handler, and I would “translate” by saying whatever I felt needed to be said. My Arabic was atrocious, and Botuna’s was excellent, but I did not trust him not to give the game away. Botuna’s nerves were not as steady as mine. Botuna’s nerves were not as steady as a jellyfish’s, when it came to Bin Selem. At the mere mention of the man’s name Botuna’s eyes blew up like balloons and his bowels lost all compunction. Whether he could convincingly perform his part in our little chamber drama, I had grave doubts — but, to repeat, we had limited time and few raw materials (i.e., Botuna and myself) with which to work.

*   *   *

We rode into the Arab’s camp at sunset. My hope was that the fading light would help hide Botuna’s makeup; and that the cooking fires would help hide the pungent odor of the river mud covering his every exposed inch.

Bin Selem’s camp was a huge affair, spread out across the banks of the Zambezi. Colorful tents stood in clusters, crowding together like debutantes at a ball, stretching from one horizon to the other. The slave trade, allegedly dead, was doing all right by Bin Selem. We heard music, the sounds of celebration, throughout the camp. Tomorrow was to be the wedding. Tonight was for debauchery.

A group of picket guards gestured at us to dismount and demanded an explanation for our presence. Botuna, overplaying his hand and his part, railed against their impertinence in some language approximating, at a guess, Icelandic. Attempting to calibrate my “translations” to the level of his distress, I said, in halting Arabic, “Who interferes with the mighty Turk? Who dares stand astride his path?”

The pickets jabbered amongst themselves. None of them could have failed to recognize the name of the Turk, but what was he doing here now, accompanied by but one retainer? He was due to arrive in the morning, as per tradition, and a man as rich and powerful as he must be attended by hundreds, if not thousands, of men, horses, camels, a retinue! Not one lone, bedraggled Britisher!

Botuna bellowed some more. The pickets jumped. One of them spoke to me, so quickly that I couldn’t make heads or tails of it, but another of them ran off into the camp, I assumed to ask his master’s advice. Botuna went on and on until I nudged him, surreptitiously, with my elbow. His nerves were turning him into a gibbering idiot.

A short while later, as the pickets continued their babble — for all I knew, snickering at Botuna’s disguise and wondering how we imagined we might get away with it — a dark shape appeared from the twilit camp, a shape I recognized from his visit to our camp two nights before:  Bin Selem himself.

“Halloo!” I shouted.

“English?” he said, in English. “Why you here?”

“A thousand pardons, Bin Selem, but my camp has been attacked by the forces of — the Belgian!”

Bin Selem’s eyes did their impression of Botuna’s eyes when hearing the words “Bin Selem.”

“The Belgian,” he said, his voice quavering. “The Belgian is here?”

A fortuitous choice, on my part — I could have gone with the Frenchman, or the Spaniard, or the Russian, but I had chosen the Belgian. Apparently I had chosen wisely.

“He has ridden to the east, many leagues,” I said. I turned to Botuna. “This man, the Turk, came to my assistance with his noble army — but the Belgian’s forces scattered them, as well! Ah, this has not been a good day for either of us, the Turk or me!”

Bin Selem stared at me. He stared at Botuna. I knew that, like most men who employ translators, he understood more English than he liked to let on, yet, in the absence of a translator, I could not be certain how much of my speech he’d understood.

“Turk?” he said to Botuna. “The Turk?”

Alachem,” said Botuna. I translated:  “Yes, I am the Turk.”

“Your army — scattered?” Bin Selem swept his hands as if across a table, wiping it clean. “Destroyed?”

I said something incomprehensible to Botuna and he replied in something equally incomprehensible. Perhaps somewhere along the way he’d picked up some Sioux.

“Destroyed!” I said to Bin Selem.

He frowned. He spat on the ground. “Then no marry daughter!” he barked. “No way no how!”

I thought fast. I hadn’t considered that a Turk without his “army” was a Turk without power and therefore a Turk of no use to Bin Selem.

“This small, meager portion of his army,” I said, without translating Bin Selem’s words for Botuna or waiting for Botuna’s reply to translate for Bin Selem. “Not his entire army, good heavens! Only the portion of it he’d brought for the wedding! Mostly, you know, hairdressers and tailors and chefs and tent decorators. The main force of the army is still intact and will, when the Turk rejoins it with his new bride, crush the Belgian once and for all!”

Bin Selem again stared at me. No doubt he was mulling over how it was that I was able to read the Turk’s thoughts, thereby relieving the Turk of the need to express himself.

“Despite the Turk’s painful, if inconsequential, losses this day, he would not miss the Wedding of the Century!” I enthused. “His own!”

Bin Selem continued to stare at me. He was no fool. He could perceive at least eighteen ways our story didn’t hold water — if our story were a boat Botuna and I would both have drowned — but the Arab is by nature a hospitable and courteous fellow, and on the (extreme) off-chance that our story contained (vague) elements of truth, he could not insult us by challenging our veracity. His culture compelled him to offer us succor.

He bade us enter the camp. But he kept one cold gray eye on “the Turk,” and the other, disconcertingly, on me.

*   *   *

We were billeted in a large, overfurnished tent that had clearly been festooned for the night’s festivities, the enormous bed lodged in its center a riot of scarlet sheets and gold pillows, redolent of exotic perfumes.

“We must find Shalima,” said Botuna as soon as we were alone.

“We can’t very well go parading through camp calling her name,” I said. “What we need — is a plan.”

“Did not Bwana have a plan?”

“Only to get us this far, Botuna. To be honest I’m flabbergasted we’ve pulled it off. Either your disguise is considerably more persuasive than I’d believed or the Arabs all suffer from cataracts.”

“Bwana has no plan,” said Botuna simply. As if it were entirely up to me to win for him fair maiden’s hand!

“I have a plan,” I said, though in truth it was more a throw of the dice than a well-thought-out scheme. It was also an idea that had just then entered my head.

“Here is what we shall do,” I said. “–We shall start a fire.”

Botuna pointed out the tent’s entrance, at one of innumerable bonfires lit throughout the camp. “There is already a fire, Bwana, right over there.”

“No, we shall set this tent on fire. And other tents, as well. Bin Selem will be anxious to protect his daughter. We need only follow him and he will lead us to her.”

“He will also,” said Botuna slowly, as if concerned that I might not be able to follow his train of thought, “be protecting his daughter.”

Botuna had a point there. We could never hope to overcome the Arab, not if we’d had another dozen men. Bin Selem had, it was said, taken on a family of hippopotami and lived to tell the tale. But the answer came to me in a flash.

“He will lead her away from the fire, yes, but do not forget the manfulness of the Arab. When Shalima is safely out of harm’s way, Bin Selem will return to oversee the efforts to quell the fire — mark my words.”

I stood smiling, well-pleased at my ratiocination. Botuna, however, looked less impressed. He said, “Are you certain, Bwana?”

“As certain as I am of anything!”

Botuna gulped.

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