The Leopard Woman by Stewart Edward White
Chapter X. The Sultani
Six hours later the Leopard Woman's camp had arrived, had been pitched, and everything was running again as usual. The new askari headman, Jack, had reported pridefully to Kingozi. The latter had nodded a careless acknowledgment; and had referred the man to his mistress. She had disappeared for a time, but now emerged again, bathed, freshened, dainty in her silken tea gown, the braids of hair down her back, the band of woven gold encircling her brow, the single strange jewel hanging in the middle of her forehead. For a time she sat alone under her own tree; but, as Kingozi showed no symptoms of coming to her, and as she was bored and growing impatient, she trailed over to him, the Nubian following with her chair. Kingozi was absorbed in establishing points on his map. He looked up at her and nodded pleasantly, then moved his protractor a few inches.
"Just a moment," he murmured absorbedly.
She lit a cigarette and yawned. The immediate prospect was dull. Savages continued to drift in, to squat and stare, then to move on to the porters' camps. There a lively bartering was going on. From some unsuspected store each porter had drawn forth a few beads, some snuff, a length of wire, or similar treasure; and with them was making the best bargain he could for the delicacies of the country. The process was noisy. Four askaris, with their guns, stood on guard. The shadows were lengthening in the hills, and the heat waves had ceased to shimmer like veils.
"That's done," said Kingozi at last.
"Thank the Lord!" she ejaculated. "This bores me. Why do we not do something? I should like some milk, some eggs--many things. Let us summon this king."
But Kingozi shook his head.
"That's all very well where the white man's influence reaches. But not here. I doubt if there are three men in this people who have ever even seen a white man. Of course they have all heard of us, and know a good deal about us. We must stand on our dignity here. Let the sultani come to us, all in his own time. Without his goodwill we cannot move a step farther, we cannot get a pound of potio."
"How long will it take? I want to get on. This does not interest me. I have seen many natives."
"Two days of visit. Then perhaps a week to get potio and guides."
"Impossible! I could not endure it!"
"I am afraid you will have to. I know the untamed savage. He is inclined to be friendly, always. If you hurry the process, you must fight. That's the trouble with a big mob like yours. It is difficult to feed so many peacefully. Even in a rich country they bring in potio slowly--a cupful at a time. With the best intentions in the world you may have to use coercion to keep from starving. And coercion means trouble. Look at Stanley--he left hostilities everywhere, that have lasted up to now. The people were well enough disposed when he came among them with his six or eight hundred men. But he had to have food and he had to have it quickly. He could not wait for slow, diplomatic methods. He had to take it. Even when you pay for a thing, that doesn't work. The news travelled ahead of him, and the result was he had to fight. And everybody else has had to fight ever since."
"That is interesting. I did not know that."
"A small party can negotiate. That's why I say you have too many men."
"But the time wasted!" she cried aghast.
"Time is nothing in Africa." He went on to tell her of the two travellers in Rhodesia who came upon a river so wide that they could but just see from one bank to the other; and so swift that rafts were of little avail. So one man went back for a folding boat while the other camped by the stream. Four months later the first man returned with the boat. The "river" had dried up completely!
"They didn't mind," said Kingozi, "they thought it a huge joke."
An hour before sundown signs of activity manifested themselves from the direction of the invisible village. A thin, high, wailing chant in female voices came fitfully to their ears. A compact little group of men rounded the bend and approached. Their gait was slow and stately.
"Well," remarked Kingozi, feeling for his pipe, "we are going to be honoured by that visit from his majesty."
The Leopard Woman leaned forward and surveyed the approaching men with some interest. They were four in number. Three were naked, their bodies oiled until they glistened with a high polish. One of them carried a battered old canvas steamer chair; one a fan of ostrich plumes; and one a long gourd heavily decorated with cowrie shells. The fourth was an impressive individual in middle life, hawkfaced, tall and spare, carrying himself with great dignity. He wore a number of anklets and armlets of polished wire, a broad beaded collar, heavy earrings, and a sumptuous robe of softened goatskins embroidered with beads and cowrie shells. As he strode his anklets clashed softly. His girt was free, and he walked with authority. Altogether an impressive figure.
"The sultani is a fine-looking man," observed Bibi-ya-chui. "I suppose the others are slaves."
Kingozi threw a careless glance in the direction of the approaching group.
"Not the sultani--some understrapper. Chief Hereditary Guardian of the Royal Chair, or something of that sort, I dare say."
The tall man approached, smiling graciously. Kingozi vouchsafed him no attention. Visibly impressed, the newcomer rather fussily superintended the unfolding and placing of the chair. The slaves with the plumed fan and the gourd stationed themselves at either side. The other two men fell back.
Now the shrill chanting became more clearly audible. Shortly appeared a procession. Women bearing burdens walked two by two. Armed men with spears and shields flanked them. As they approached, it could be seen that they were very gorgeous indeed; the women hung with strings of cowries, bound with glittering brass and iron, bedecked with strings of beads. To one familiar with savage peoples there could be no doubt that these were close to the purple. Each bead, each shell, each bangle of wire had been passed through many, many hands before it reached this remote fastness of barbarity; and in each hand, you may be sure, profits had remained. But the men were more impressive still. Stark naked of every stitch of cloth or of tanned skins, oiled with an unguent carrying a dull red stain, their heads shaved bare save for a small crown patch from which single feathers floated, they symbolized well the warrior stripped for the fray. A beaded broad belt supported a short sword and the runga, or war club; an oval shield of buffalo hide, brilliantly painted, hung on the left arm; a polished long-bladed spear was carried in the right hand. And surrounding the face, as a frame, was a queer headdress of black ostrich plumes. Every man of them wore about his ankles hollow bangles of considerable size; and these he clashed loudly one against the other as he walked.
It made a great uproar this--the clang of the iron, the wild wailing of the women's voices.
Kingozi moved his chair four or five paces to the front.
"I'm sorry," he told her, "but I must ask you to stay where you are. This is an important occasion."
He surveyed the oncoming procession with interest.
"Swagger old beggar," he observed. "His guard are well turned out. You know those markings on the shields are a true heraldry--the patterns mean families, and all that sort of thing."
The chanting grew louder as the procession neared. The warriors stared fiercely straight ahead. Before Kingozi they parted to right and left, forming an aisle leading to his chair. Down this the women came, one by one, still singing, and deposited their burdens at the white man's feet. There were baskets of m'wembe, earthen bowls of eggs, fowls, gourds of milk, bundles of faggots and firewood, woven bags of n'jugu nuts, vegetables, and two small sheep. Kingozi stared indifferently into the distance; but as each gift was added to the others he reached forward to touch it as a sign of acceptance. Their burdens deposited, they took their places in front of the ranks of the warriors.
"Am I supposed to speak?" asked the Leopard Woman.
"Shouldn't we order out our askaris with their guns to make the parade?"
"No. We could not hope to equal this show, possibly. Our lay is to do the supercilious indifferent." He turned to his attentive satellite. "Cazi Moto," he ordered, "tell our people, quietly, to go back to their camps. They must not stand and stare at these shenzis. And tell M'pishi to make large balauris of coffee, and put in plenty of sugar."
Cazi Moto grinned understandingly, and glided away. Shortly the safari men could be seen sauntering unconcernedly back to their little fires.
Suddenly the warriors cried out in a loud voice, and raised their right arms and spears rigidly above their heads. A tall, heavily built man appeared around the bend. He was followed by two young women, who flanked him by a pace or so to the rear. They were so laden with savage riches as to be almost concealed beneath the strings of cowrie shells and bands of beads. In contrast the man wore only a long black cotton blanket draped to leave one shoulder and arm bare. Not an earring, not a bangle, not even a finger ring or a bead strap relieved the sombre simplicity of the black robe and the dark skin.
"But this man is an artist!" murmured Bibi-ya-chui. "He understands effect! This is stage managed!"
The sultani approached without haste. He stopped squarely before Kingozi's chair. The latter did not rise. The two men stared into each other's eyes for a full minute, without embarrassment, without contest, without defiance. Then the black man spoke.
"Jambo, bwana," he rumbled in a deep voice.
"Jambo, sultani" replied Kingozi calmly.
They shook hands.
With regal deliberation the visitor arranged his robes and sat down in the battered old canvas chair. A silence that lasted nearly five minutes ensued.
"I thank you, sultani, for the help your men have given. I thank you for the houses. I thank you for these gifts."
The sultani waved his hand magnificently.
"It is not the custom of white men to give gifts until their departure," continued Kingozi, "but this knife is yours to make friendship."
He handed over a knife, of Swedish manufacture, the blade of which disappeared into the handle in a most curious fashion. The sultani's eyes lit up with an almost childish delight, but his countenance showed no emotion. He passed the knife on to the dignitary who stood behind his chair.
"This," said Kingozi, taking one of the steaming balauris from Cazi Moto, "is the white man's tembo."
The sultani tasted doubtfully. He was pleased. He gave back the balauri at last with a final smack of the lips.
"Good!" said he.
Another full five minutes of silence ensued. Then the sultani arose. He cast a glance about him, his eye, avid with curiosity, held rigidly in restraint. It rested on the Leopard Woman.
"I see you have one of your women with you," he remarked.
He turned, without further ceremony, and stalked off, followed at a few paces by the two richly ornamented girls. The warriors again raised their spears aloft, holding them thus until their lord had rounded the cliff. Then, the women in precedence, they marched away. Kingozi puffed his pipe indifferently.
The Leopard Woman was visibly impatient, visibly roused.
"Are you letting him go?" she demanded. "Do not you inquire the country? Do not you ask for potio, for guides?"
"Not to-day," replied Kingozi. He turned deliberately to face her, his eyes serious. "Please realize once for all that we live here only by force of prestige. My only chance of getting on, our only chance of safety rests on my ability to impress this man with the idea that I am a bigger lord than he. And, remember, I have lived in savage Africa for fifteen years, and I know what I am doing. This is very serious. You must not interfere; and you must not suggest."
The Leopard Woman's eyes glittered dangerously, but she controlled herself.
"You talk like a sultan yourself," she protested at length. "You should not use that tone to me."
Kingozi brushed the point aside with a large gesture.
"I will play the game of courtesy with you, yes," said he, "but only when it does not interfere with serious things. In this matter there must be no indefiniteness, no chance for misunderstanding. Politeness, between the sexes, means both. I will repeat: in this you must leave me free hand no interference, no suggestion."
"And if I disobey your commands?" she challenged, with an emphasis on the last word.
He surveyed her sombrely.
"I should take measures," he replied finally.
"You are not my master: you are not the master of my men!"
Kingozi permitted himself a slight smile.
"If you believe that last statement, just try to give an order to your men counter to an order of mine. You would see. And of course in case of a real crisis I should have to make myself master of you, if you seemed likely to be troublesome."
"I would kill you! I warn you; I go always armed!"
From the folds of her silken robe she produced a small automatic pistol which she displayed. Kingozi glanced at it indifferently.
"In that case you would have to kill yourself, too; and then it would not matter to either of us."
"I find you insufferable!" she cried, getting to her feet.
She moved away in the direction of her camp. The faithful Nubian folded her chair and followed. At the doorway of her tent she looked back. Kingozi, his black pipe in his mouth, was bending absorbedly over his map.