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Black Mischief, " Waugh's third novel, helped to establish his reputation as a master satirist. Set on the fictional African island of Azania, the novel chronicles the efforts of Emperor Seth, assisted by the Englishman Basil Seal, to modernize his kingdom. Profound hilarity ensues from the issuance of homemade currency, the staging of a "Birth Control Gala, " the rightful ruler's demise at his own rather long and tiring coronation ceremonies, and a good deal more mischief....
Black Mischief, " Waugh's third novel, helped to establish his reputation as a master satirist. Set on the fictional African island of Azania, the novel chronicles the efforts of Emperor Seth, assisted by the Englishman Basil Seal, to modernize his kingdom. Profound hilarity ensues from the issuance of homemade currency, the staging of a "Birth Control Gala, " the rightful ruler's demise at his own rather long and tiring coronation ceremonies, and a good deal more mischief.
We, Seth, Emperor of Azania, Chief of the Chiefs of Sakuyu, Lord of Wanda and Tyrant of the Seas, Bachelor of the Arts of Oxford University, being in this the twenty-fourth year of our life, summoned by the wisdom of Almighty God and the unanimous voice of our people to the throne of our ancestors, do hereby proclaim…” Seth paused in his dictation and gazed out across the harbor where in the fresh breeze of early morning the last dhow was setting sail for the open sea. “Rats,” he said; “stinking curs. They are all running away.”
The Indian secretary sat attentive, his fountain pen poised over the pad of writing paper, his eyes blinking gravely behind rimless pince-nez.
“Is there still no news from the hills?”
“None of unquestionable veracity, your majesty.”
“I gave orders that the wireless was to be mended. Where is Marx? I told him to see to it.”
“He evacuated the town late yesterday evening.”
“He evacuated the town?”
“In your majesty’s motor-boat. There was a large company of them—the stationmaster, the chief of police, the Armenian Archbishop, the Editor of the Azanian Courier, the American vice-consul. All the most distinguished gentlemen in Matodi.”
“I wonder you weren’t with them yourself, Ali.”
“There was not room. I supposed that with so many distinguished gentlemen there was danger of submersion.”
“Your loyalty shall be rewarded. Where had I got to?”
“The last eight words in reproof of the fugitives were an interpolation?”
“Yes, yes, of course.”
“I will make the erasion. Your majesty’s last words were ‘do hereby proclaim.’ ”
“Do hereby proclaim amnesty and free pardon to all those of our subjects recently seduced from their loyalty, who shall during the eight days subsequent to this date return to their lawful allegiance. Furthermore…”
They were in the upper story of the old fort at Matodi. Here, three hundred years before, a Portuguese garrison had withstood eight months’ siege from the Omani Arabs; at this window they had watched for the sails of the relieving fleet, which came ten days too late.
Over the main door traces of an effaced escutcheon were still discernible, an idolatrous work repugnant to the prejudice of the conquerors.
For two centuries the Arabs remained masters of the coast. Behind them in the hills the native Sakuyu, black, naked, anthropophagous, had lived their own tribal life among their herds—emaciated, puny cattle with rickety shanks and elaborately branded hide. Farther away still lay the territory of the Wanda—Galla immigrants from the mainland who, long before the coming of the Arabs, had settled in the north of the island and cultivated it in irregular communal holdings. The Arabs held aloof from the affairs of both these people; war drums could often be heard inland and sometimes the whole hillside would be aflame with burning villages. On the coast a prosperous town arose: great houses of Arab merchants with intricate latticed windows and brass-studded doors, courtyards planted with dense mango trees, streets heavy with the reek of cloves and pineapple, so narrow that two mules could not pass without altercation between their drivers; a bazaar where the money changers, squatting over their scales, weighed out the coinage of a world-wide trade, Austrian thalers, rough stamped Mahratta gold, Spanish and Portuguese guineas. From Matodi the dhows sailed to the mainland, to Tanga, Dar-es-Salaam, Malindi and Kismayu, to meet the caravans coming down from the great lakes with ivory and slaves. Splendidly dressed Arab gentlemen paraded the water-front hand in hand and gossiped in the coffee houses. In early spring when the monsoon was blowing from the north-east, fleets came down from the Persian Gulf bringing to market a people of fairer skin who spoke a pure Arabic barely intelligible to the islanders, for with the passage of years their language had become full of alien words—Bantu from the mainland, Sakuyu and Galla from the interior—and the slave markets had infused a richer and darker strain into their Semitic blood; instincts of swamp and forest mingled with the austere tradition of the desert.
In one of these Muscat trading fleets came Seth’s grandfather, Amurath, a man wholly unlike his companions, a slave’s son, sturdy, bow-legged, three-quarters Negro. He had received education of a kind from Nestorian monks near Basra. At Matodi he sold his dhow and entered the Sultan’s service.
It was a critical time in local history. The white men were returning. From Bombay they had fastened on Aden. They were in Zanzibar and the Sudan. They were pushing up round the Cape and down through the Canal. Their warships were cruising the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean intercepting slavers; the caravans from Tabora were finding difficulty in getting through to the coast. Trade in Matodi was almost at a standstill and a new listlessness became apparent in the leisured life of the merchants; they spent their days in the town moodily chewing khat. They could no longer afford to keep up their villas round the bay. Gardens ran wild and roofs fell into disrepair. The grass huts of the Sakuyu began to appear on the more remote estates. Groups of Wanda and Sakuyu came into town and swaggered insolently about the bazaars; an Arab party returning from one of the country villas was ambushed and murdered within a mile of the walls. There were rumors of a general massacre, planned in the hills. The European powers watched their opportunity to proclaim a Protectorate.
In this uncertain decade there suddenly appeared the figure of Amurath; first as commander-in-chief of the Sultan’s forces, then as general of an independent army; finally as Emperor Amurath the Great. He armed the Wanda and at their head inflicted defeat after defeat on the Sakuyu, driving off their cattle, devastating their villages and hunting them down in the remote valleys of the island. Then he turned his conquering army against his old allies on the coast. In three years he proclaimed the island a single territory and himself its ruler. He changed its name. Until now it had been scored on the maps as Sakuyu Island; Amurath renamed it the Empire of Azania. He founded a new capital at Debra Dowa, two hundred miles inland on the borders of the Wanda and Sakuyu territories. It was the site of his last camp, a small village, partially burnt out. There was no road to the coast, only a faltering bush path which an experienced scout could follow. Here he set up his standard.
Presently there was a railway from Matodi to Debra Dowa. Three European companies held the concession in turn and failed; at the side of the line were the graves of two French engineers who went down with blackwater, and of numerous Indian coolies. The Sakuyu would wrench up the steel sleepers to forge spear heads and pull down lengths of copper telegraph wire to adorn their women. Lions came into the labor lines at night and carried off workmen; there were mosquitoes, snakes, tsetse fly, spirillum ticks; there were deep water courses to be bridged which for a few days in the year bore a great torrent down from the hills, bundling with it timber and boulders and an occasional corpse; there was a lava field to be crossed, a great waste of pumice five miles broad; in the hot season the metal blistered the hands of workmen; during the rains landslides and washouts would obliterate the work of months. Reluctantly, step by step, barbarism retreated; the seeds of progress took root and, after years of slow growth, burst finally into flower in the single, narrow-gauge track of the Grand Chemin de Fer Impérial d’Azanie. In the sixteenth year of his reign Amurath traveled in the first train from Matodi to Debra Dowa. With him sat delegates from France, Great Britain, Italy and the United States, his daughter and heir, her husband, while, in a cattle truck behind, rode a dozen or so illegitimate children; in another coach sat the hierarchies of the various Churches of Azania; in another the Arab sheiks from the coast, the paramount chief of the Wanda, and a shriveled, scared old Negro, with one eye, who represented the Sakuyu. The train was decked with bunting, feathers and flowers; it whistled continuously from coast to capital; levies of irregular troops lined the way; a Jewish nihilist from Berlin threw a bomb which failed to explode; sparks from the engine started several serious bush fires; at Debra Dowa Amurath received the congratulations of the civilized world and created the French contractor a Marquess in the Azanian peerage.
The first few trains caused numerous deaths among the inhabitants, who for some time did not appreciate the speed or strength of this new thing that had come to their country. Presently they became more cautious and the service less frequent. Amurath had drawn up an elaborate time-table of express trains, local trains, goods trains, boat trains, schemes for cheap return tickets and excursions; he had printed a map showing the future developments of the line in a close mesh all over the island. But the railway was the last great achievement of his life; soon after its opening he lapsed into a coma from which he never recovered consciousness; he had a wide reputation for immortality; it was three years before his ministers, in response to insistent rumors, ventured to announce his death to the people. In the succeeding years the Grand Chemin de Fer Impérial d’Azanie failed to develop on the lines adumbrated by its founder. When Seth came down from Oxford there was a weekly service; a goods train at the back of which was hitched a single shabby saloon car, upholstered in threadbare plush. It took two days to accomplish the journey, resting the night at Lumo, where a Greek hotel proprietor had proposed a contract profitable to the president of the line; the delay was officially attributed to the erratic efficacy of the engine lights and the persistence of the Sakuyu in their depredations of the permanent way.
Amurath instituted other changes, less sensational than the railway, but nevertheless noteworthy. He proclaimed the abolition of slavery and was warmly applauded in the European Press; the law was posted up prominently in the capital in English, French and Italian where every foreigner might read it; it was never promulgated in the provinces nor translated into any of the native languages; the ancient system continued unhampered but European intervention had been anticipated. His Nestorian upbringing had strengthened his hand throughout in his dealings with the white men. Now he declared Christianity the official religion of the Empire, reserving complete freedom of conscience to his Mohammedan and pagan subjects. He allowed and encouraged an influx of missionaries. There were soon three Bishops in Debra Dowa—Anglican, Catholic and Nestorian—and three substantial cathedrals. There were also Quaker, Moravian, American-Baptist, Mormon and Swedish-Lutheran missions handsomely supported by foreign subscribers. All this brought money into the new capital and enhanced his reputation abroad. But his chief safeguard against European intrusion was a force of ten thousand soldiers, maintained under arms. These he had trained by Prussian officers. Their brass bands, goosestep and elaborate uniforms were at first the object of mild amusement. Then there was an international incident. A foreign commercial agent was knifed in a disorderly house on the coast. Amurath hanged the culprits publicly in the square before the Anglican Cathedral—and with them two or three witnesses whose evidence was held to be unsatisfactory—but there was a talk of indemnities. A punitive force was landed, composed half of European, half of mainland native troops. Amurath marched out against them with his new army and drove them in hopeless rout to the seashore where they were massacred under the guns of their own fleet. Six European officers of field rank surrendered and were hanged on the battlefield. On his triumphal return to the capital Amurath offered the White Fathers a silver altar to Our Lady of Victories.
Throughout the highlands his prestige became superhuman. “I swear by Amurath” was a bond of inviolable sanctity. Only the Arabs remained unimpressed. He ennobled them, creating the heads of the chief families Earls, Viscounts and Marquesses, but these grave, impoverished men whose genealogies extended to the time of the Prophet preferred their original names. He married his daughter into the house of the old Sultan—but the young man accepted the elevation and his compulsory baptism into the National Church without enthusiasm. The marriage was considered a great disgrace by the Arabs. Their fathers would not have ridden a horse with so obscure a pedigree. Indians came in great numbers and slowly absorbed the business of the country. The large houses of Matodi were turned into tenements, hotels or offices. Soon the maze of mean streets behind the bazaar became designated as the “Arab quarter.”
Very few of them migrated to the new capital, which was spreading out round the palace in a haphazard jumble of shops, missions, barracks, legations, bungalows and native huts. The palace itself, which occupied many acres enclosed by an irregular fortified stockade, was far from orderly or harmonious. Its nucleus was a large stucco villa of French design; all round this were scattered sheds of various sizes which served as kitchens, servants’ quarters and stables; there was a wooden guard-house and a great thatched barn which was used for state banquets; a domed, octagonal chapel and the large rubble and timber residence of the Princess and her consort. The ground between and about the buildings was uneven and untidy; stacks of fuel, kitchen refuse, derelict carriages, cannon and ammunition lay in prominent places; sometimes there would be a flyblown carcass of a donkey or camel, and after the rains pools of stagnant water; gangs of prisoners, chained neck to neck, could often be seen shoveling as though some project were on hand of leveling or draining, but except for the planting of a circle of eucalyptus trees, nothing was done in the old Emperor’s time to dignify his surroundings.
Many of Amurath’s soldiers settled round him in the new capital; in the first few years they were reinforced by a trickle of detribalized natives, drawn from their traditional grounds by the glamour of city life; the main population, however, was always cosmopolitan, and as the country’s reputation as a land of opportunity spread through the less successful classes of the outside world Debra Dowa gradually lost all evidence of national character. Indians and Armenians came first and continued to come in yearly increasing numbers. Goans, Jews and Greeks followed, and later a race of partially respectable immigrants from the greater powers, mining engineers, prospectors, planters and contractors, on their world-wide pilgrimage in quest of cheap concessions. A few were lucky and got out of the country with modest fortunes; most were disappointed and became permanent residents, hanging round the bars and bemoaning over their cups the futility of expecting justice in a land run by a pack of niggers.
When Amurath died, and the courtiers at last could devise no further explanation of his prolonged seclusion, his daughter reigned as Empress. The funeral was a great occasion in East African history. A Nestorian patriarch came from Iraq to say the Mass; delegates from the European powers rode in the procession and as the bugles of the Imperial guard sounded the last post over the empty sarcophagus, vast crowds of Wanda and Sakuyu burst into wailing and lamentation, daubed their bodies with chalk and charcoal, stamped their feet, swayed and clapped in frantic, personal grief at the loss of their master.
Now the Empress was dead and Seth had returned from Europe to claim his Empire.
Noon in Matodi. The harbor lay still as a photograph, empty save for a few fishing boats moored motionless against the sea wall. No breeze stirred the royal standard that hung over the old fort. No traffic moved on the water-front. The offices were locked and shuttered. The tables had been cleared from the hotel terrace. In the shade of a mango the two sentries lay curled asleep, their rifles in the dust beside them.
“From Seth, Emperor of Azania, Chief of the Chiefs of Sakuyu, Lord of Wanda and Tyrant of the Seas, Bachelor of the Arts of Oxford University, to His Majesty of the King of England, Greeting. May this reach you. Peace be to your house…”
He had been dictating since dawn. Letters of greeting, Patents of Nobility, Pardons, Decrees of Attainder, Army Ordinances, police regulations, orders to European firms for motor-cars, uniforms, furniture, electric plant, invitations to the Coronation, proclamations of a public holiday in honor of his victory, lay neatly clipped together on the secretary’s table.
“Still no news from the hills. We should have heard of the victory by now.” The secretary recorded these words, considered them with his head cocked slightly to one side and then drew a line through them. “We should have heard, shouldn’t we, Ali?”
“We should have heard.”
“What has happened? Why don’t you answer me? Why have we heard nothing?”
“Who am I? I know nothing. I only hear what the ignorant people are saying in the bazaar, since the public men evacuated the city. The ignorant people say that your majesty’s army has not gained the victory you predict.”
“Fools, what do they know? What can they understand? I am Seth, grandson of Amurath. Defeat is impossible. I have been to Europe. I know. We have the Tank. This is not a war of Seth against Seyid but of Progress against Barbarism. And Progress must prevail. I have seen the great tattoo of Aldershot, the Paris Exhibition, the Oxford Union. I have read modern books—Shaw, Arlen, Priestley. What do the gossips in the bazaars know of all this? The whole might of Evolution rides behind him; at my stirrups run woman’s suffrage, vaccination and vivisection. I am the New Age. I am the Future.”
“I know nothing of these things,” said Ali. “But the ignorant men in the bazaars say that your majesty’s guards have joined Prince Seyid. You will remember my pointing out that they had received no wages for several months?”
“They shall be paid. I have said it. As soon as the war is over they shall be paid. Besides I raised them in rank. Every man in the brigade is now a full corporal. I issued the edict myself. Ungrateful curs. Old-fashioned fools. Soon we will have no more soldiers. Tanks and aeroplanes. That is modern: I have seen it. That reminds me. Have you sent off instructions for the medals?”
Ali turned over the file of correspondence.
“Your majesty has ordered five hundred Grand Cross of Azania, first class; five hundred second; and seven hundred third; also designs for the Star of Seth, silver gilt and enamel with parti-colored ribbon…”
“No, no. I mean the Victory Medal.”
“I have received no instructions concerning the Victory Medal.”
“Then take this down.”
“The invitation to the King of England?”
“The King of England can wait. Take down the instructions for the Victory Medal. Obverse, the head of Seth—that is to be copied from the photograph taken in Oxford. You understand—it is to be modern, European—top hat, spectacles, evening dress collar and tie. Inscription SETH IMPERATOR IMMORTALIS. The whole to be simple and in good taste. Many of my grandfather’s medals were florid. Reverse. The figure of Progress. She holds in one hand an aeroplane, in the other some small object symbolic of improved education. I will give you the detail of that later. The idea will come to me… a telephone might do… I will see. Meanwhile begin the letter:
“From Seth, Emperor of Azania, Chief of the Chiefs of Sakuyu, Lord of Wanda and Tyrant of the Seas, Bachelor of the Arts of Oxford University, to Messrs Mappin and Webb of London, Greeting. May this reach you. Peace be to your house…”
Evening and a small stir of life. Muezzin in the minaret. Allah is great. There is no Allah but Allah and Mohammed is his prophet. Angelus from the mission church. Ecce ancilla Domini: fiat mihi secundum verbum tuum. Mr. Youkoumian behind the bar of the Amurath Café and Universal Stores mixed himself a sundowner of mastika and water.
“What I want to know is do I get paid for the petrol?”
“You know I am doing all I can for you, Mr. Youkoumian. I’m your friend. You know that. But the Emperor’s busy today. I’ve only just got off. Been on all day. I’ll try and get your money for you.”
“I’ve done a lot for you, Ali.”
“I know you have, Mr. Youkoumian, and I hope I am not ungrateful. If I could get you your money just by asking for it you should have it this evening.”
“But I must have it this evening. I’m going.”
“I’ve made my arrangements. Well, I don’t mind telling you, Ali, since you’re a friend.” Mr. Youkoumian glanced furtively round the empty bar—they were speaking in Sakuyu—“I’ve got a launch beached outside the harbor, behind the trees near the old sugar mill in the bay. What’s more, there’s room in it for another passenger. I wouldn’t tell this to anyone but you. Matodi’s not going to be a healthy place for the next week or two. Seth’s beaten. We know that. I’m going to my brother on the mainland. Only I want my money for the petrol before I go.”
“Yes, Mr. Youkoumian, I appreciate your offer. But you know it’s very difficult. You can hardly expect the Emperor to pay for having his own motor-boat stolen.”
“I don’t know anything about that. All I know is that yesterday evening Mr. Marx came into my store and said he wanted the Emperor’s motor-boat filled up with petrol. Eighty rupees’ worth. I’ve served Mr. Marx with petrol before for the Emperor. How was I to know he wanted to steal the Emperor’s motor-boat? Should I have given it to him if I did?”
Mr. Youkoumian spread his hands in the traditional gesture of his race. “I am a poor man. Is it right that I should suffer in this way? Is it fair? Now, Ali, I know you. You’re a just man. I’ve done a lot for you in the past. Get me my eighty rupees and I will take you to stay with my brother in Malindi. Then when the troubles are over, we can come back or stay or go somewhere else, just as we like. You don’t want your throat cut by the Arabs. I’ll look after you.”
“Well, I appreciate your offer, Mr. Youkoumian, and I’ll do what I can. I can’t say more than that.”
“I know you, Ali. I trust you as I’d trust my own father. Not a word to anyone about the launch, eh?”
“Not a word, Mr. Youkoumian, and I’ll see you later this evening.”
“That’s a good fellow. Au revoir and remember, not a word to anyone about the launch.”
When Ali had left the Amurath Café, Youkoumian’s wife emerged from the curtain behind which she had been listening to the conversation.
“What’s all this you’ve been arranging? We can’t take that Indian to Malindi.”
“I want my eighty rupees. My dear, you must leave these business matters to me.”
“But there isn’t room for anyone else in the launch. We’re overloaded already. You know that.”
“I know that.”
“Are you mad, Krikor? Do you want to drown us all?”
“You must leave these things to me, my flower. There is no need to worry. Ali is not coming with us. All I want is my eighty rupees for Mr. Marx’s petrol. Have you finished your packing? We start as soon as Ali returns with the money.”
“Krikor, you wouldn’t… you aren’t going to leave me behind, are you?”
“I should not hesitate to do so if I thought it necessary. Finish your packing, girl. Don’t cry. Finish your packing. You are coming to Malindi. I have said it. Finish your packing. I am a just man and a peaceful man. You know that. But in time of war one must look after oneself and one’s own family. Yes, one’s family, do you hear me? Ali will bring us the money. We shall not take him to Malindi. Do you understand? If he is trouble I shall hit him with my stick. Don’t stand there like a fool. Finish your packing.”
The sun had now set. As Ali walked back to the fort through the dark lane he was aware of new excitement in the people around him. Groups were hurrying to the waterfront, others stood in their doorways chattering eagerly. He heard the words “Seyid,” “Victory” and “Army.” In the open space before the harbor he found a large crowd collected with their backs to the water, gazing inland over the town. He joined them and in the brief twilight saw the whole dark face of the hills alight with little points of fire. Then he left the crowd and went to the old fort. Major Joab, the officer of the guard, stood in the court studying the hills through field glasses.
“You have seen the fires inland, secretary?”
“I have seen them.”
“I think there is an army encamped there.”
“It is the victorious army, major.”
“Praise God. It is what we have waited to see.”
“Certainly. We should praise God whether in prosperity or adversity,” said Ali, piously; he had accepted Christianity on entering Seth’s service. “But I bring orders from the Emperor. You are to take a picket and go with them to the Amurath Bar. There you will find the Armenian Youkoumian, a little fat man wearing a black skull cap. You know him? Very well. He is to be put under arrest and taken a little outside the town. It does not matter where, but take him some distance from the people. There you are to hang him. Those are the Emperor’s orders. When it is done, report to me personally. There is no need to mention the matter directly to His Majesty. You understand?”
“I understand, secretary.”
Upstairs, Seth was deep in a catalogue of wireless apparatus.
“Oh, Ali, I have decided on the Tudor model in fumed oak. Remind me tomorrow to write for it. Is there still no news?”
Ali busied himself in arranging the papers on the table and fitting the typewriter into its case.
“Is there no news?”
“There is news of a kind, Majesty. I opine that there is an army bivouacked in the hills. Their fires are visible. If your majesty will come outside, you will see them. No doubt they will march into the city tomorrow.”
Seth sprang gaily from his chair and ran to the window.
“But this is magnificent news. The best you could have brought. Ali, I will make you a Viscount tomorrow. The army back again. It is what we have been longing for the last six weeks, eh, Viscount?”
“Your majesty is very kind. I said an army. There is no means of knowing which one it may be. If, as you surmise, it is General Connolly, is it not curious that no runner has come to salute your majesty with news of the victory?”
“Yes, he should have sent word.”
“Majesty, you are defeated and betrayed. Everyone in Matodi knows it except yourself.”
For the first time since the beginning of the campaign, Ali saw that there was uncertainty in his master’s mind. “If I am defeated,” said Seth, “the barbarians will know where to find me.”
“Majesty, it is not too late to escape. Only this evening I heard of a man in the town who has a launch hidden outside the harbor. He means to leave in it himself, for the mainland, but he would sell it at a price. There are ways for a small man to escape where a great man like your majesty would be trapped. For two thousand rupees he will sell this boat. He told me so, in so many words. He named the price. It is not much for the life of an Emperor. Give me the money, Majesty, and the boat shall be here before midnight. And in the morning Seyid’s troops will march into the town and find it empty.”
Ali looked hopefully across the table, but before he had finished speaking he realized that Seth’s mood of uncertainty was past.
“Seyid’s troops will not march into the town. You forget that I have the Tank. Ali, you are talking treasonable nonsense. Tomorrow I shall be here to receive my victorious general.”
“Tomorrow will show, Majesty.”
“Tomorrow will show.”
“Listen,” said Ali, “my friend is very loyal to your majesty and a most devoted man. Perhaps if I were to use my influence he might reduce his price.”
“I shall be here in the morning to receive my army.”
“Suppose he would accept eighteen hundred rupees?”
“I have spoken.”
Without further discussion Ali picked up his typewriter and left the room. As he opened the doors his ears caught the inevitable shuffle of bare feet, as a spy slipped away down the dark passage. It was a sound to which they had grown accustomed during the past months.
In his own quarters Ali poured out a glass of whisky and lit a cheroot. Then he drew out a fiber trunk from beneath the bed and began a methodical arrangement of his possessions preparatory to packing them. Presently there was a knock at the door and Major Joab came in.
“Good evening, secretary.”
“Good evening, major. The Armenian is dead?”
“He is dead. Heavens, how he squealed. You have whisky there.”
“Will you help yourself?”
“Thank you, secretary… you seem to be preparing for a journey.”
“It is well to be prepared—to have one’s things in good order.”
“I think there is an army in the hills.”
“It is what they are saying.”
“I think it is the army of Seyid.”
“That, too, is being said.”
“As you say, secretary, it is well to be prepared.”
“Will you take a cheroot, major? I expect that there are many people in Matodi who would be glad to leave. The army will be here tomorrow.”
“It is not far away. And yet there is no way of leaving the town. The boats are all gone. The railway is broken. The road leads straight to the encampment.”
Ali folded a white drill suit and bent over the trunk, carefully arranging the sleeves. He did not look up as he said: “I heard of a man who had a boat. It was spoken of in the bazaar, I forget by whom. An ignorant fellow no doubt. But this man, whoever it was, spoke of a boat concealed outside the harbor. He was going to the mainland tonight. There was room for two others, so they said. Do you think a man would find passengers to the mainland at five hundred rupees each? That is what he asked.”
“It is a great price for a journey to the mainland.”
“It is not much for a man’s life. Do you think such a man, supposing there is any truth in the tale, would find passengers?”
“Perhaps. Who can tell? A man of affairs who can take his wisdom with him—a foreigner with no stock but a typewriter and his clothes. I do not think a soldier would go.”
“A soldier might pay three hundred?”
“It is not likely. What life would there be for him in a foreign country? And among his own people he would be dishonored.”
“But he would not hinder others from going. A man who would pay five hundred rupees for his passage money, would not grudge another hundred to the guard who allowed him to pass?”
“Who can say? Some soldiers might hold that a small price for their honor.”
“But two hundred.”
“I think soldiers are for the most part poor men. It is seldom they earn two hundred rupees… Well, I must bid you good night, secretary. I must return to my men.”
“How late do you stay on guard, major?”
“Till after midnight. Perhaps I shall see you again.”
“Who can say?… Oh, major, you have forgotten your papers.”
“So I have. Thank you, secretary. And good night.”
The major counted the little pile of notes which Ali had placed on the dressing-table. Two hundred exactly. He buttoned them into his tunic pocket and returned to the guard house.
Here, in the inner room, sat Mr. Youkoumian talking to the captain. Half an hour before the little Armenian had been very near death, and awe of the experience still overcast his normally open and loquacious manner. It was not until the rope was actually round his neck that he had been inspired to mention the existence of his launch. His face was damp and his voice jerky and subdued.
“What did the Indian dog say?”
“He wanted to sell me a place in the boat for five hundred rupees. Does he know where it is hidden?”
“Fool that I was, I told him.”
“It is of little consequence. He gave me two hundred rupees to let him past the guard; also some whisky and a cheroot. There is no need for us to worry about Ali. When do we start?”
“There is one point, officers… my wife. There is not room for her in the boat. She must not know of our departure. Where was she when you—when we left the café together?”
“She was making a noise. One of the corporals locked her in the loft.”
“She will get out of there.”
“You leave all that to us.”
“Very well, major. I am a just man and a peaceable man. You know that. I only want to be sure that everything will be agreeable for everyone.”
Ali finished his packing and sat down to wait. “What’s Major Joab up to?” he wondered. “It is curious his refusing to leave the town. I suppose he thinks he will get a price for Seth in the morning.”
Night and the fear of darkness. In his room at the top of the old fort Seth lay awake and alone, his eyes wild with the inherited terror of the jungle, desperate with the acquired loneliness of civilization. Night was alive with beasts and devils and the spirits of dead enemies; before its power Seth’s ancestors had receded, slid away from its attack, abandoning in retreat all the baggage of Individuality; they had lain six or seven in a hut; between them and night only a wall of mud and a ceiling of thatched grass; warm, naked bodies breathing in the darkness an arm’s reach apart, indivisibly unified so that they ceased to be six or seven scared blacks and became one person of more than human stature, less vulnerable to the peril that walked near them. Seth could not expand to meet the onset of fear. He was alone, dwarfed by the magnitude of the darkness, insulated from his fellows, strapped down to mean dimensions.
The darkness pulsed with the drumming of the unknown conquerors. In the narrow streets of the city the people were awake—active and apprehensive. Dark figures sped to and fro on furtive errands, hiding from each other in doorways till the way was empty. In the houses they were packing away bundles in secret places, little hoards of coins and jewelry, pictures and books, ancestral sword hilts of fine workmanship, shoddy trinkets from Birmingham and Bombay, silk shawls, scent bottles, anything that might attract attention next morning when the city was given over to loot. Huddled groups of women and children were being herded to refuge in the cellars of the old houses or into the open country beyond the walls; goats, sheep, donkeys, livestock and poultry of all kinds jostled with them for precedence in the city gates. Mme. Youkoumian, trussed like a chicken on the floor of her own bedroom, dribbled through her gag and helplessly writhed her bruised limbs.
Ali, marching back to the fort under arrest between two soldiers, protested angrily to the captain of the guard.
“You are making a great mistake, captain. I have made all arrangements with the major for my departure.”
“It is the Emperor’s orders that no one leaves the city.”
“When we see the major he will explain everything.”
The captain made no reply. The little party marched on; in front between two other soldiers shambled Ali’s servant, bearing his master’s trunk on his head.
When they reached the guard-room, the captain reported. “Two prisoners, major, arrested at the South Gate attempting to leave the city.”
“You know me, major; the captain has made a mistake. Tell him it is all right for me to go.”
“I know you, secretary; captain, report the arrests to His Majesty.”
“But, major, only this evening I gave you two hundred rupees. Do you hear, captain, I gave him two hundred rupees. You can’t treat me like this. I shall tell His Majesty everything.”
“We had better search his luggage.”
The trunk was opened and the contents spread over the floor. The two officers turned them over with interest and appropriated the few articles of value it contained. The minor possessions were tossed to the corporals. At the bottom, wrapped in a grubby nightshirt, were two heavy objects which, on investigation, proved to be the massive gold crown of the Azanian Empire and an elegant ivory scepter presented to Amurath by the President of the French Republic. Major Joab and the captain considered this discovery for some time in silence. Then the major answered the question that was in both their minds. “No,” he said, “I think we had better show these to Seth.”
“Both of them?”
“Well, at any rate, the scepter. It would not be so easy to dispose of. Two hundred rupees,” said the major bitterly, turning on Ali, “two hundred rupees and you proposed to walk off with the Imperial regalia.”
From the inner room Mr. Youkoumian listened to this conversation in a mood of sublime contentment; the sergeant had given him a cigarette out of a box lifted from the shop at the time of his arrest; the captain had given him brandy—similarly acquired—of his own distillation; a fiery, comforting spirit. The terrors of the gallows were far behind him. And now Ali had been caught red-handed with the crown jewels. Nothing was required to complete Mr. Youkoumian’s happiness, except a calm sea for their crossing to the mainland; and the gentle night air gave promise that this, too, would be vouchsafed him.
It was only a matter of a few words for Major Joab to report the circumstances of Ali’s arrest. The damning evidence of the scepter and the soiled nightshirt was laid before Seth on the table. The prisoner stood between his captors without visible interest or emotion. When the charge had been made, Seth said, “Well, Ali.”
Until now they had spoken in Sakuyu. Ali answered, as he always spoke to his master, in English. “It is regrettable that this should have happened. These ignorant men have greatly disturbed the preparations for your majesty’s departure.”
“For my departure?”
“For whom else would I prepare a boat? What other reason could I have for supervising the safe conduct of your majesty’s scepter, and of the crown which the officers have omitted to bring from the guard-room?”
“I don’t believe you, Ali.”
“Your majesty wrongs himself. You are a distinguished man, educated in Europe—not like these low soldiers. Would you have trusted me had I been unworthy? Could I, a poor Indian, hope to deceive a distinguished gentleman educated in Europe? Send these low men out and I will explain everything to you.”
The officers of the guard had listened uneasily to these alien sentences; now at Seth’s command they withdrew their men. “Shall I make preparations for the execution, Majesty?”
“Yes… no… I will tell you when. Stand by for further orders below, Major.”
The two officers saluted and left the room. When they had gone Ali sat down opposite his master and proceeded at his ease. There was no accusation or reproach in the Emperor’s countenance, no justice or decision, trust or forgiveness; one emotion only was apparent in the dark young face before him, blank terror. Ali saw this and knew that his case was won. “Majesty, I will tell you why the officers have arrested me. It is to prevent your escape. They are plotting to sell you to the enemy. I know it. I have heard it all from one of the corporals who is loyal to us. It was for this reason that I prepared the boat. When all was ready I would have come to you, told you of their treachery and brought you away safely.”
“But, Ali, you say they would hand me over to the enemy. Am I then really beaten?”
“Majesty, all the world knows. The British General Connolly has joined Prince Seyid. They are there on the hills together now. Tomorrow they will be in Matodi.”
“But the Tank?”
“Majesty, Mr. Marx, the distinguished mechanic who made the tank, fled last night, as you well know.”
“Connolly too. Why should he betray me? I trusted him. Why does everyone betray me? Connolly was my friend.”
“Majesty, consider the distinguished general’s position. What would he do? He might conquer Seyid and your majesty would reward him, or he might be defeated. If he joins Seyid, Seyid will reward him, and no one can defeat him. How would you expect a distinguished gentleman, educated in Europe, should choose?”
“They are all against me. All traitors. There is no one I can trust.”
“Except me, Majesty.”
“I do not trust you. You, least of all.”
“But you must trust me. Don’t you understand? If you do not trust me there will be no one. You will be alone, quite alone.”
“I am alone. There is no one.”
“Then since all are traitors, trust a traitor. Trust me. You must trust me. Listen. It is not too late to escape. No one but I knows of the boat. The Armenian Youkoumian is dead. Do you understand, Majesty? Give the order to the guards to let me pass. I will go to where the boat is hidden. In an hour I will have it here, under the sea wall. Then when the guard is changed you will join me. Don’t you understand? It is the only chance. You must trust me. Otherwise you will be alone.”
The Emperor stood up. “I do not know if I can trust you. I do not think there is anyone I can trust. I am alone. But you shall go. Why should I hang you? What is one life more or less when all are traitors. Go in peace.”
“Your majesty’s faithful servant.”
Seth opened the door; again the scamper of the retreating spy.
“Ali is to go free. He may leave the fort.”
“The execution is canceled?”
“Ali may leave the fort.”
“As your majesty commands.” Major Joab saluted. As Ali left the lighted room he turned back and addressed the Emperor.
“Your majesty does well to trust me.”
“I trust no one… I am alone.”
The Emperor was alone. Faintly on the night air he heard the throbbing of drums from the encamped army. Quarter-past two. Darkness for nearly four hours more.
Suddenly the calm was splintered by a single, shrill cry—a jet of sound, spurting up from below, breaking in spray over the fort, then ceasing. Expressive of nothing, followed by nothing; no footsteps; no voices; silence and the distant beat of the tom-toms.
Seth ran to the door. “Hullo! Who is there? What is that? Major! Officer of the guard!” No answer. Only the inevitable scuffle of the retreating spy. He went to the window. “Who is there? What has happened? Is there no one on guard?”
A long silence.
Then a quiet voice from below. “Majesty?”
“Who is that?”
“Major Joab of the Imperial Infantry at your majesty’s service.”
“What was that?”
“What was that cry?”
“It was a mistake, your majesty. There is no cause for alarm.”
“What has happened?”
“The sentry made a mistake. That is all.”
“What has he done?”
“It is only the Indian, Majesty. The sentry did not understand his orders. I will see to it that he is punished.”
“What has happened to Ali? Is he hurt?”
“He is dead, your majesty. It is a mistake of the sentry’s. I am sorry your majesty was disturbed.”
Presently Major Joab, the captain of the guard and Mr. Youkoumian, accompanied by three heavily burdened corporals, left the fort by a side door and made their way out of the town along the coast path towards the disused sugar mills.
And Seth was alone.
Excerpted from Black Mischief by Evelyn Waugh Copyright © 2012 by Evelyn Waugh. Excerpted by permission.
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