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The Cataract Café rocked gently in the wake of a police launch, the lavish hemp coils of her port bumpers protecting the broad barge from the cracked stonework of her fashionable mooring on the Nile.
Proud of his sea legs, Olivio Fonseca Alavedo extended his short arms and balanced himself neatly while he climbed the steps to his shelf behind the bar. His toes tightened and curled like little snails in his slippers while he waited for the swells to ease and merge into the slow current of the river. Soon would come Assumption Day, the fifteenth of August, 1935, his fiftieth birthday. A remarkably advanced age for a dwarf, and there was much for which to be grateful. Born in a hovel in Goa, the natural grandson of the Portuguese archbishop, he now possessed respect, and friends, and children, though no son. He was rich, though never rich enough, and this Depression provided a feast of opportunity. But he could not anticipate many more birthdays. Whatever he was to do, he must do now.
Gazing out the porthole at the domes and minarets that rose above the flat roofs of the city, he reviewed his schemes for the day. He was certain of one thing: war was coming to Africa. Why else had the Italians bought enough of his light long-staple cotton for forty thousand uniforms? He thought of the cotton bourse in Alexandria, the most dangerous casino in Africa. Through the mauve morning haze he watched the river slip past like some immense dark creature. He thought of the distant rapids and waterfalls, all the rushing cataracts that gave life to the river and theirname to his Café. He breathed in the warm dusty scent of Cairo, the dry thin air of the desert mixing with the smells of the aromatic trees that lined the banks of the Nile and the sweet rotting fruit that washed against the piers. As he reflected, he heard the busy scratching of the river rats scuttling along the side of the barge. If war was coming, an honest man must be prepared.
When the barge steadied, Olivio lowered his arms and let his fingers dally in a tray of orange-yellow mangoes. He sniffed each oval fruit near the base of the stem, first with one nostril then the other, hunting for the flowery aroma of perfect ripeness. He held each mango between his palms, pressing it gently as he made his choices. Selecting six, he drew a cutthroat razor from a shelf beneath the bar. Peeling off the leathery skins, he dropped the bleeding fruit into a coarse strainer resting in a pottery bowl. Then he cut each one into two equal cheeks before ripping out the nubbly pits. With vigorous twists of his wrist, he mashed the exposed fruit through the strainer. Gnawing on the best pit with the grating energy of a beaver, he inhaled the dense fragrance of the pulpy juice while he reflected on his many blessings. He put the bare pit to one side and seized the bowl with both hands. Lowering his face to the frothy nectar, he gulped down the thick juice in one long draft.
Already he had acquired many acres of the richest land on earth: farms and plantations in the delta of the River Nile. In that floodplain, millennia of accumulated sediment had built a fertility even greater than his wife's. The dwarf licked the orange froth from his lips and wiped his sticky domed head with a bar towel as he thought of the vast flatlands covered in dense white cotton buds that made his other farms in Kenya and Portugal, Goa and Brazil seem hazardous and barren.
Best of all, Olivio had six daughters. Girls of uneven appearance, to be sure, the blood of India and Africa and Iberia mixing in their veins like the turbulent headwaters of the Nile. Some were tall and olive-skinned like the Fonsecas of Portugal, others dark and broad like their Kikuyu maternal ancestors, but all fine limbed and adoring of their father. As yet only one or two carried modest traces of his deformity. All, he feared, were hot beneath the skin. Already deeply voluptuous, the two eldest had been confined for staring after men with their wandering brown eyes. Would their mother, Kina, a woman without the gift of speech, but with glistening ebony skin and breasts like ocean waves, ever bear him a boy?
Only the eldest child, Clove, was truly like him: short and brilliant, with insight brighter than a torch. He thought again of his wife, and, with equal spirit, of the woman who now waited belowdecks on the soft divan. Soon the rising light would sparkle on the silver paint that covered her nipples and upper eyelids. Throughout the lower Nile, Jamila was celebrated for her ability to bend thin gold coins in her navel. She was not one of the heavy-hipped buxom dancers who performed, when young, at smart supper clubs and weddings, and, grown older and softer, at hotel bars and Egyptian musical cafés. Nor was she one of the conventional but select belly dancers who entertained occasionally at the palace, or at small private parties of the rich. Jamila was a lady. Blessed, Olivio thought, was any gold dinar that was introduced into such a navel: at once soft as an angel's breath, yet in motion powerful as the gears of a locomotive.
Olivio stepped down the narrow stair behind the bar. He moved along the starboard wall of the saloon, adjusting the brown rattan blinds to admit more air, for soon the furious heat of the day would be upon them. The dwarf peered out through one of the heart-shaped openings of the sandalwood window screen and noted the dark high-water mark on the stones of the quay.
He became suddenly alert as a new sound caught his ear: a once familiar rhythm, one for which he had been waiting. A cane tapped firmly down the gangway that led from the sidewalk promenade to the barge. It was the sound of friendship.
But how did he look? To avoid seeing himself, the dwarf had forbidden mirrors in the Café.
Olivio nipped into the pantry and examined himself with his one eye in the lustrous rear surface of the silver punch ladle. Distorted but clear. How appropriate, he thought. The little man started at the top, taking a scarlet tarbush from a peg on the wall and setting the flat-topped conical hat on his smooth head. He adjusted the silk tassel that fell to the left. He turned his head to one side. How well these Turkish hats suited him, like an informal crown, bringing the gifts of height and dignity. Reason enough for his move to Egypt from East Africa a decade or more ago.
His eye passed quickly over the reflected round face with the prominent forehead, not seeing the white and pink ridges of old scar tissue from the fire that had destroyed his home in Kenya. He did not notice the ears hanging in empty loops like the handles of a vase, the thin red lips, the nose flat and smooth as a baby's. The false eye was properly centered. He adjusted the neck and shoulders of his gallabiyyah. Pearl grey, it matched his eye. He was prepared.
"Ahoy!" Adam Penfold descended one step to the deck and tapped his cane twice against the rail. "I say, ahoy!"
Olivio stepped from the saloon bar into the bright daylight of the deck café. He bowed as deeply as his contorted back permitted, his heart alive with joy and pride. How rare to be host to a man he loved, especially one who had been his master.
The dwarf held out his arms and looked up with his mouth open as the smiling Englishman hurried to him. Two lean porters in shabby robes waited behind on the embankment, lifting a large packing case from a donkey cart by means of two poles that rested on their shoulders. What could this be? the dwarf wondered.
"Happy birthday, my dear Olivio, though a bit early." Lord Penfold's faded blue eyes smiled down from the drawn craggy face as the laugh lines at their outer corners deepened into wrinkles. His white and grey eyebrows reached forward like bushes on the edge of a cliff. He rested his hands on Olivio's shoulders.
"Oh, how we've missed you! Kenya's not the same without you." Penfold shook the dwarf with delight in his eyes. There was so much they knew of each other. "Brought you a present so you won't forget us."
"Never, my lord." Olivio wagged a forefinger in reproach and peeked around the tall slender man at the wooden case. He gestured impatiently to the Egyptians to set it down. He recalled the lessons of hospitality once provided by his English master, and for the moment he suppressed his curiosity.
"How may I refresh you, sir? A cool drink? A juice, perhaps a small gin?"
"Bit late for one, too early for the other." Penfold wiped his lined forehead with a wrinkled handkerchief. "Could you spare a glass of stout? Damned hard duty rushing about in this heat, beating off these Gypie beggars."
"A Bull Dog for his lordship." The dwarf clapped his hands sharply. When the dark drink was brought, he presented it himself. Then he looked back at the case with a sparkling eye. "May we open this now?"
"Course, but do you mind if I rest my leg and take a sip while you're about it?" Penfold collapsed with a groan into a high-backed wicker chair beside one of the round marble-topped tables.
Olivio reached up and gripped the polished mahogany rails. Dismissing the pain in his lower spine, trying not to waddle from side to side like a common midget, he climbed the sloping gangplank to the quay with small swift steps. Above his head the tassels of the curved yellow canopy swung gently from side to side as he advanced up the oriental carpet that ran its length. At the top he ignored a filthy importuning urchin, already taller than Olivio himself, who was collecting cigarette ends in a small sack hanging from his waist. Beggars were to Cairo what rain was to London and heat to Goa.
The dwarf stalked around the crate, touching it here and there with his fingertips, trying not to skip and caper. On the far side he found the words, stencilled in black: SENDER- ZIMMERMAN, NAIROBI, KENYA. The finest taxidermist in all Africa! His palms, never burned by the fire, began to sweat.
"Open it, idiots!" Olivio ordered the Egyptians, knowing how Lord Penfold disliked his harshness with servants, but confident his former employer, like all English gentlemen, spoke no language but his own.
"Must you wait for your mother to give birth to another ass?" He could put anger in his words, but not his tone. "Open it!"
One porter drew a rough thick blade from his rope belt and began to prize up the lid. Passersby paused and gathered to observe, clucking and whispering with anticipation.
"Careful, you fools!" Olivio said in a gentle voice as the first board splintered free. "One slip and I'll drown your children like kittens!"
The man levered up the long nails, palming them with cunning and concealing them in a fold of his robe for later sale in the iron market. The other porter hauled out the straw that topped up the crate. When the lid was off, the two cleaned out the remainder of the packing and looked to the dwarf for instructions. An old man scrambled to gather the discarded boards.
Olivio advanced to the side of the crate. Rising on his toes, he gripped the splintery edge and stared inside. He sniffed. He could smell the red dust of East Africa. Proud of his sense of smell, the dwarf pressed his face into two small handfuls of straw. He snuffled and sneezed and cast down the straw. Then he studied the large parcel inside the crate.
What might this be? An object, over a yard long, shaped like a barrel but with a sharp prow, and tightly swaddled in thick burlap. Olivio looked up, incensed to see a score of Arab boys pressing forward on the other side of the crate, struggling for positions of advantage as they sought to look inside. Where was his fierce Nubian servant with the lash?
"Lift this treasure out and bring it to my Café," the dwarf called to the porters, disgusted by their bare feet and filthy hands. He crossed onto the barge and pointed at the largest table.
Determined to honor his friend's gift, Olivio shrilled instructions as the two men bent over the edge of the case. Groaning deeply, no doubt exaggerating the strain of his effort, the larger porter sought to raise one end of the object. Unable to dislodge it, the man raised his red face and pressed both hands to his back. Both men stared at the dwarf and shook their heads.
"Do as I say!" Olivio snapped. "Raise it out!" Only Lord Penfold's presence prevented him from revealing the harsh edge of his impatience.
The men turned back to the case. Behind them a large grey motorcar slowed as it approached along the busy avenue, making its way through a swarm of over-burdened bicycles, horse-drawn gharries, open lorries and motorcars. Donkeys tottered by under baskets of figs and charcoal. The Daimler pressed through the confusion of the curbside traffic, its silver grille gleaming like the armored prow of a royal barge sailing through a throng of small craft. Nearby, herded tight together by running boys with long waving whips, a pack of mangy camels trotted to the butcher.
The driver's door opened and an immense man emerged with a horsehair switch in one hand. His face black as a moonless night in the Sudan, the Nubian chauffeur opened the rear door.
Like a jack popping from its box, a young girl jumped to the curb, two belted schoolbooks swinging from one hand. Perhaps fourteen, shortish, with a smooth oval face, heavy shiny lips, large black eyes and a single long pigtail, she was dark and exceptionally shapely. Her breasts pressed against her green school pinafore like melons in a sling.
"Papa!" she called with a full smile. Seeing nothing but him, not touching the railings, she skipped down the gangplank to bend over her father and greet him with two kisses.
"I present my oldest daughter, Clove. Lord Penfold." The dwarf spoke slowly with the air of a man raising the lid of his treasure chest. "You knew her as a child."
"What a fortunate father." Penfold greeted the girl with a crinkly smile as she curtsied.
"Aren't you my godfather?" The girl turned her large black eyes on the Englishman. "You and Mr. Rider?"
"Yes, child, Anton Rider and I are your two delinquents," Penfold confessed, embarrassed he had brought no present. "We were just opening a surprise for your father."
Clove walked to the chest and peered inside, ignoring the pressing boys as the Nubian chauffeur flicked his lash and pushed aside the swarming youths. The two porters returned to their struggle. One end of the heavy object began to rise, then slammed back down.
"Ah!" the smaller porter cried, his fingers caught between the cargo and the splintery wall of the container. "Allah save me! My hands!"
"Tariq," said Clove calmly, pointing at the wooden retaining plank that had been nailed to one wall of the case to secure the present inside. "Rip out that board first."
The Nubian reached in and seized the long narrow board in both hands. At the other end of the chest the Egyptian screamed and struggled to free his fingers.
Tariq tightened his grip and wrenched with both hands. The eight nails whined as they were bent and torn free from the wall of the chest. The watching youths gasped and stepped back with respect as Tariq tossed the plank onto the sidewalk and lifted out the object. The freed man shook his hands like mop ends and sat down on the curb, wailing and rocking from side to side. Clove bent over him briefly.
"You'll be fine," she said in Arabic before returning to her father.
Tariq, expressionless, set down the parcel on the largest table of the Café.
"Sturdy chap," Penfold said to Olivio.
"I myself will unwrap this, my lord," said the dwarf, proud of his servant's display, once again finding utility in the physical abilities he himself had been denied and was obliged to procure.
Adam Penfold wiped his face and nodded with a smile. He replaced the handkerchief in his left cuff and gave each porter ten piastres. "Thank you," he said to the men as they departed.
Olivio drew back the binding strip by strip as if unwrapping a mummy. The thing on the table began to take shape. Could it be? Impossible! Yes! A horn. Two horns, front and behind. Quickly the dwarf unwrapped the final swathes. The mounted head of a white rhinoceros, two glass eyes shining under hard grey lids. He looked more closely, admiring the immense square upper lip and the occasional thorn-like lashes. But what was he to do with this monstrous perissodactyl?
"Magnificent! My lord, bless you. This noble beast is more than I deserve!" Olivio feared what this tribute must have cost. He glanced at Penfold, trying not to catch his eye, not wishing to be seen noticing the frayed cuffs and missing button of his unpressed suit. His noble friend had a taste for generosity but not the means.
"Daddy!" Clove touched her father's shoulder with one hand, the tip of the front horn with the other. "He'd be lovely over the bar!"
"Brilliant, my treasure!" exclaimed the dwarf, reaching up to pinch her ear, then turning to Penfold. "Always your animal will live in honor above the bar. The Cataract Café shall be his home."
"Nothing at all, old boy," mumbled Penfold. "Just something to remind you of the old days. I say, is it time for that stiffener? Dash of Indian tonic with the gin, if you will. Protects one against this fearful heat."
"Please follow me." Olivio held open the beaded curtain. Penfold limped into the saloon. The Englishman sat in a high chair at one end of the bar and watched the dwarf climb his ladder to prepare the drink. He thought he detected pain in the movements of his little friend. The older man remembered without bitterness the day when he had seemed rich, and Olivio poor.
"Drink, my lord, and then I shall tell you why I invited you to Cairo." The dwarf's right eye twinkled as he set the gin on the bar. For a moment he paused and gazed at his daughter as she opened the French primer on the counter beside him and carefully pressed each page flat as she turned it. "In truth, it was not for my birthday, though I am so honored that you should come for that."
"Not at all. But if it's some sort of mischief, I'm past it." As Penfold drank, he regarded Olivio more closely. "May I ask how your new eye is getting on?"
Not ashamed of this artifact, the dwarf spoke plainly.
"The eye is cold in the mornings and warm as a boiled egg by the evening," he said from his shelf, recalling the curious pleasures Jamila had invented in bed while she toyed with the smooth object, warming and moistening it most intimately. "Although it was fitted at the German clinic in Alexandria, the finest and most expensive in all Egypt, yet I think it is not perfect."
"Il me plaît, Papa," said Clove in a cheerful voice as she rested one hand on her father's hunched shoulder and cupped her other hand.
Speechless with pride, Olivio stared with his good eye at his former master. Had Lord Penfold noticed that his daughter spoke French? French?
With one thumb the dwarf pulled up the hairless lid of his left eye. The ivory sphere popped from the socket and fell into his daughter's palm.
Clove wiped the eye on her short puffed sleeve and rolled it along the surface of the bar towards her father's friend.
"Nous aimons, vous aimez, ils aiment," she said softly. "Je t'aime," the girl added, kissing her father's cheek.
Olivio enjoyed the crazy stare of the iris and pupil as the eye spun along the polished leadwood.
"She does seem a bit soft." Adam Penfold squeezed the eye between his fingers. "Rather like the billiard balls in a bad club. Very likely one of those Sudanese elies, used to an easy life wallowing about in the swamps. You'd be better off with proper Kenya ivory from the highlands, old boy. Or maybe a hippo tooth. They're harder, but a trifle yellow, of course. Might make you look a little jaundiced, if you know what I mean."
Lord Penfold passed back the ivory ball and studied the dwarf's right eye. "Though perhaps we could ask Anton Rider to hunt up a hippopotamus that'd make a handsome match."
Next they'll be fitting me with crocodile teeth, thought the little Goan as he counted the change in the money drawer. As it is, I'm the only man in the world with one eye from India and one from Africa.
"Heaven knows the dear lad needs some business," Penfold continued. "There's no money in safari hunting these days."
"Mr. Anton's problem is in Cairo, not the bush," said the dwarf.
"Eh?" said Penfold with interest. "Haven't seen either of 'em home in Kenya for a long bit."
"Miss Gwenn finds no comfort in his wandering life, my lord, and is still here completing her study of medicine." The dwarf hesitated. "And living under indelicate circumstances, I fear."
"You don't say," said Penfold, concerned about his friends' marriage, but not wishing to inquire directly.
"Miss Gwenn and the boys are living in the house of a diplomat, an Italian officer, one Colonel Grimaldi."
"How very peculiar."
"Life is not easy," said Olivio, completing his tally of the bar money. "Not much cash last evening, my lord."
"Hard times at home, as well." Penfold swung his game leg. "How are things in Cairo?"
"Busy as an anthill, and so fashionable," said Olivio. "And with a wife, most costly. The tailors are only Armenians, but the styles are French. The gentlemen's shoes are English, not too pointed. The Greeks are waiters, cigarette makers, even lawyers. The beggars, too, understand their business, though they are children to one who knows Bombay."
Penfold wiped his spectacles and peered at The Egyptian Gazette with watery eyes while the little man recorded the tally in the bar ledger. As he picked out headlines, the Englishman craned his head closer and closer to the newspaper, like a chicken picking seeds and scraps amidst the dirt.
"Look at this, will you? Italians Provoke Border Incident With Ethiopia. Seven Abyssinian Soldiers Killed at Wal Wal. Ethiopia Mobilizes and Protests to League of Nations. Italian Mountain Troops Sail for Eritrea." Penfold looked up from the paper, his jutting eyebrows raised with concern.
"What business have those Eyeties down there, I ask you? Not the sort of type one wants in Africa. Don't set a good example." Indignant, he slapped the paper on the table. "They're already banging about next door in Libya. Someone's going to have to stop 'em before it all goes too far."
"War is in the air, my lord, and we must have our house in order."
As if not hearing, Penfold continued. "Hitler Addresses Torchlight Rally. German Youths Drill With Shovels. Here comes Fritz again," he grumbled. "Should've finished 'im off last time. Two Million on Relief in New York." Penfold groaned and folded the paper before continuing.
"Will this Depression never end? All the farms in Kenya are bust, including mine, or what's left of it. In London the soup queues run on for blocks. Seems even the Yanks are poor these days. 'Bout time. But doing a bit better since they chucked out the engineer and elected that chatty Dutch chap with the bad legs."
"Here we are fortunate, my lord. There is nourishment, and life is not too dear." The little man nodded respectfully, waiting for the right moment to unveil his scheme while his old master carried on. Recalling the night when Penfold had saved his life, he considered how gentle and deferential his old friend appeared, almost timid in his manner, yet how courageous and active he could be when that was needed.
"Plenty of mischief about in the world, Olivio, and some of it getting closer. Old Mars stirring about again and all that. These Italians bullying Abyssinia, or Ethiopia, or whatever they're calling the place now. Seems that Mussoloni ..."
"Mussolini," Clove said in a quiet voice, exchanging a glance with her father after she spoke.
"Yes, quite," said Penfold, pausing to look at the girl, astonished by her knowledge. "Seems this Mussolini fellow wants to gobble up a bit more of Africa, like the rest of us used to, I suppose. Only they're starting a bit late, and Abyssinia's 'bout all there is left. Hordes of his Eyeties been passing through Suez for months. Now he's unloading those fancy new armored cars in Somaliland."
"If war comes, we must be prepared to do our part," said the dwarf. His lordship hadn't changed, Olivio observed. His mind still wandered hopelessly, unable to concentrate on business and self-interest. He knew Adam Penfold would scorn the prospect of profiteering if his country were at war.
"Last World War ended in Africa," Penfold mused, finishing his new drink and sighing. "Shouldn't be surprised if the next one begins out here. Lord knows where it will end. Not sure poor old England can stand another one just yet."
"If war comes, my lord, England will need friends to provide her with food and clothing."
"Mmm." Penfold looked at the little man with care.
"Here in Egypt, cotton and sugar are the answer. Your English warriors will need uniforms, and last time cane sugar was like gold."
"I see your point."
The dwarf considered how to present his proposal with dignity for his friend. "In Cairo, these are days of opportunity. It is the time to buy. It is about this that I have invited you to Egypt." He leaned forward and pinched the open loops of his ears. "All that is required is money and friends."
"I wish you good fortune, Olivio," Penfold said awkwardly.
"It will be our good fortune, ours, for I require your help, as a partner. I wish to buy more estates in the Delta, rice and cane and cotton, dowries for my daughters and wealth for my old age."
Penfold shifted in his seat. "Sounds a bit risky, should've thought, in times like this."
"It is the best time. The banks are failing! The most powerful European firms are locking their doors! Even the rich Copts are selling their villas in Alexandria!" responded the dwarf with enthusiasm, drumming both his hands on the bar. "For the first time in generations the cotton farms of the Delta are available to a man with money in his hands."
Olivio's grey eye stared at his friend, as if hypnotizing the older man. "The soil is sixty feet deep!" Leaning forward across the bar, he held both hands up beside his own face, the fingers spread like a spider's web and the small smooth palms facing Penfold. "Sixty feet! This is our chance, my lord." He paused, then continued more slowly without blinking.
"But in Cairo everything depends on how a man is seen. What is his appearance? Who does he know in the ministries? Is he respected by the clerks? Will they remember his gifts? Do they feel they can cheat him at the land registries? Who will get the water in a dry year? Who will not have too much when it floods?" The dwarf wagged one forefinger and continued, speaking slowly, as if instructing a child.
"An honest man needs powerful patrons and allies, my lord, protectors. With an English gentleman like yourself, these Egyptian scum will never trifle. They will not know who you know and who you do not know, where your influence begins and where it ends." His eye shone. "If you and I are partners, my lord, at no cost to you, we will make each other rich."
Tempted despite himself, Adam Penfold frowned and sighed slowly before speaking. "I'd hate to bring you my bad luck, old boy, and perhaps I'm a bit tired for such affairs."
"Money will refresh you, my lord! Pounds and shillings, guineas and pence make a man young, especially in the eyes of the ladies. Ha! Have you ever seen a beautiful young woman with a poor old man?"
The dwarf licked both lips with his thick tongue and shook his head from side to side. "You will see. Oh, yes. All we need is the name: Penfold Partners Estates."