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Chapter 25

VOI.

Part way up the narrow-gauge railroad from the coast is a station called Voi. On his way to the interior the traveller stops there for an evening meal. It is served in a high, wide stone room by white-robed Swahilis under command of a very efficient and quiet East Indian. The voyager steps out into the darkness to look across the way upon the outlines of two great rounded hills against an amethyst sky. That is all he ever sees of Voi, for on the down trip he passes through it about two o'clock in the morning.

At that particularly trying hour F. and I descended, and attempted, by the light of lanterns, to sort out twenty safari boys strange to us, and miscellaneous camp stores. We did not entirely succeed. Three men were carried on down the line, and the fly to our tent was never seen again.

The train disappeared. Our boys, shivering, crept into corners. We took possession of the dak-bungalow maintained by the railroad for just such travellers as ourselves. It was simply a high stone room, with three iron beds, and a corner so cemented that one could pour pails of water over one's self without wetting the whole place. The beds were supplied with mosquito canopies and strong wire springs. Over these we spread our own bedding, and thankfully resumed our slumbers.

The morning discovered to us Voi as the station, the district commissioner's house on a distant side hill, and a fairly extensive East Indian bazaar. The keepers of the latter traded with the natives. Immediately about the station grew some flat shady trees. All else was dense thorn scrub pressing close about the town. Opposite were the tall, rounded mountains.

Nevertheless, in spite of its appearance, Voi has its importance in the scheme of things. From it, crossing the great Serengetti desert, runs the track to Kilimanjaro and that part of German East Africa. The Germans have as yet no railroad; so they must perforce patronize the British line thus far, and then trek across. As the Kilimanjaro district is one rich in natives and trade, the track is well used. Most of the transport is done by donkeys--either in carts or under the pack saddle. As the distance from water to water is very great, the journey is a hard one. This fact, and the incidental consideration that from fly and hardship the mortality in donkeys is very heavy, pushes the freight rates high. And that fact accounts for the motor car, which has been my point of aim from the beginning of this paragraph.

The motor car plies between Voi and the German line at exorbitant rates. Our plan was to have it take us and some galvanized water tanks out into the middle of the desert and dump us down there. So after breakfast we hunted up the owner.

He proved to be a very short, thick-set, blond German youth who justified Weber and Fields. In fact, he talked so exactly like those comedians that my task in visualizing him to you is somewhat lightened. If all, instead of merely a majority of my readers, had seen Weber and Fields that task would vanish.

We explained our plan, and asked him his price.

"Sefen hundert and feefty rupees,"[11] said he uncompromisingly.

He was abrupt, blunt, and insulting. As we wanted transportation very much--though not seven hundred and fifty rupees' worth--we persisted. He offered an imperturbable take-it-or-leave-it stolidity. The motor truck stood near. I said something technical about the engine; then something more. He answered these remarks, though grudgingly. I suggested that it took a mighty good driver to motor through this rough country. He mentioned a particular hill. I proposed that we should try the station restaurant for beer while he told me about it. He grunted, but headed for the station.

For two hours we listened to the most blatant boasting. He was a great driver; he had driven for M., the American millionaire; for the Chinese Ambassador to France; for Grand-Duke Alexis; for the Kaiser himself! We learned how he had been the trusted familiar of these celebrities, how on various occasions--all detailed at length--he had been treated by them as an equal; and he told us sundry sly, slanderous, and disgusting anecdotes of these worthies, his forefinger laid one side his nose. When we finally got him worked up to the point of going to get some excessively bad photographs, "I haf daken myself!" we began to have hopes. So we tentatively approached once more the subject of transportation.

Then the basis of the trouble came out. One Davis, M.P. from England, had also dealt with our friend. Davis, as we reconstructed him, was of the blunt type, with probably very little feeling of democracy for those in subordinate positions, and with, most certainly, a good deal of insular and racial prejudice. Evidently a rather vague bargain had been struck, and the motor had set forth. Then ensued financial wranglings and disputes as to terms. It ended by useless hauteur on Davis's part, and inexcusable but effective action by the German. For Davis found himself dumped down on the Serengetti desert and left there.

We heard all this in excruciatingly funny Weberandfieldese, many times repeated. The German literally beat his breast and cried aloud against Davis. We unblushingly sacrificed a probably perfectly worthy Davis to present need, and cried out against him too.

"Am I like one dog?" demanded the German fervently.

"Certainly not," we cried with equal fervour. We both like dogs.

Then followed wearisomely reiterated assurances that we, at least, knew how a gentleman should be treated, and more boasting of proud connections in the past. But the end of it was a bargain of reasonable dimensions for ourselves, our personal boys, and our loads. Under plea of starting our safari boys off we left him, and crept, with shattered nerves, around the corner of the dak-bungalow. There we lurked, busy at pretended affairs, until our friend swaggered away to the Hindu quarters, where, it seems, he had his residence.

About ten o'clock a small safari marched in afoot. It had travelled all of two nights across the Thirst, and was glad to get there. The single white man in charge had been three years alone among the natives near Kilimanjaro, and he was now out for a six months' vacation at home. Two natives in the uniform of Sudanese troops hovered near him very sorrowful. He splashed into the water of the dak-bungalow, and then introduced himself. We sat in teakwood easy-chairs and talked all day. He was a most interesting, likeable, and cordial man, at any stage of the game. The game, by means of French vermouth--of all drinks!--progressed steadily. We could hardly blame him for celebrating. By the afternoon he wanted to give things away. So insistent was he that F. finally accepted an ebony walking-stick, and I an ebony knife inset with ivory. If we had been the least bit unscrupulous, I am afraid the relatives at home would have missed their African souvenirs. He went out viā freight car, all by himself, seated regally in a steamer chair between two wide-open side doors, one native squatted on either side to see that he did not lurch out into the landscape.

FOOTNOTES:

[11] Fifty pounds.


Stewart Edward White

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