The Leopard Woman by Stewart Edward White
Chapter XIII. The Tropic Moon
For several nights the plain below the plateau had been a sea of moonlight, white, ethereal, fragile as spun glass. Each evening the shadow of the mountains had shortened, drawing close under the skirts of the hills. In stately orderly progression the quality of the night world was changing. The heavy brooding darkness was being transformed to a fairy delicacy of light.
And the life of the world seemed to feel this change, to be stirring, at first feebly, then with growing strength. The ebb was passed; the tides were rising to the brim. Each night the throb of the drums seemed to beat more passionately, the rhythm to become quicker, wilder: the wailing chants of the women rose in sudden gusts of frenzy. Dark figures stole about in shadows; so that Kingozi, becoming anxious, gave especial instructions, and delegated trusty men to see that they were obeyed.
"If our men get to fooling with their women, they'll spear the lot of us!" he explained.
And at last, like a queen whose coming has been prepared, a queen in whose anticipation life had quickened, the moon herself rose serenely above the ranges.
Immediately the familiar objects changed; the familiar shadows vanished. The world became a different world, full of enchantment, of soft-singing birds, of chirping insects, of romance and recollections of past years, of longings and the spells of barbaric Africa.
Kingozi sat with the Leopard Woman "talking business" when this miracle took place. When the great rim of the moon materialized at the mountain's rim, he abruptly fell silent. The spell had him, as indeed it had all living things. From the village the drums pulsed more wildly, shoutings of men commenced to mingle with the voices of the women; a confused clashing sound began to be heard. In camp the fires appeared suddenly to pale. A vague uneasiness swept the squatting men. Their voices fell: they exchanged whispered monosyllables, dropping their voices, they knew not why.
The Leopard Woman arose and glided to the edge of the tree's shadow, where she stood gazing upward at the moon. Kingozi watched her. He, old and seasoned traveller as he was, had indeed fallen under the spell. He did not consider it extraordinary, nor did it either embarrass or stir his senses, that standing as she did before the moon and the little fires her body showed in clear silhouette through her silken robe. Apparently this was her only garment. It made a pale nimbus about her. She seemed to the vague remnant of Kingozi's thinking perceptions like a priestess--her slim, beautiful form erect, her small head bound with the golden fillet from which, he knew, hung the jewel on her forehead. As though meeting this thought she raised both arms toward the moon, standing thus for a moment in the conventional attitude of invocation. Then she dropped her arms, and came back to Kingozi's side.
Again it was like magic, the sudden blotting out of the slim human figure, the substitution of the draped form as she moved from the light into the shadow. But on Kingozi's retina remained the vision of her as she was. He shifted, caught his breath.
As she came near him his hand closed over hers, bringing her to a halt. She did not resist, but stood looking down at him waiting. He struggled for an appearance of calm.
"Who are you?" he asked unsteadily. "You have never told me."
"You have named me--Bibi-ya-chui--the Woman of the Leopards."
She was smiling faintly, looking down at him through half-closed eyes.
"But who are you? You are not English."
"My name: you have given it. Let that suffice. Me--I am Hungarian." She stooped ever so slightly and touched the upstanding mop of his wavy hair. "What does it matter else?" she asked softly.
She was leaning: the moonlight came through the branches where she leaned; the little fires--again the silken robes became a nimbus--and the drums of the n'goma, the drums seemed to be throbbing in his veins----
He leaped to his feet and seized her savagely by the shoulders. The soft silk slipped under his fingers. She threw back her head, looking at him steadily. Her eyes glowed deep, and the jewel on her forehead. Kingozi was panting.
"You are wonderful--maddening!" he muttered. This sudden unexpected emotion swept him away, as a pond, quiet behind the dam, becomes a flood.
"I knew we could be such friends!" she said.
And then one of those tiny incidents happened that so often change the course of greater events. In the darkness that still lingered the other side of the camp an askari challenged sharply some lurking wanderer. According to his recent teaching he used the official word.
"Samama!" said he.
The metallic rattle of his musket and the brief official challenge awakened Kingozi as would a dash of cold water. His instinct to crush to his breast this alluring, fascinating, willing goddess of the moon was as strong as ever. But across that instinct lay the shadow of a former day. A clear picture flashed before his mind. He saw a man in the uniform of a high office, and heard that man's words of instruction to himself. The words had concluded with a few informal phrases of trust and confidence. While these were being spoken, outside a sentry had challenged: "Samama!" and as he moved, the metal of his accoutrements had clicked.
With a wrench Kingozi turned, dropping her shoulders. He deliberately ran away. At the edge of his own camp he looked back. She was still standing as he had left her. The moonlight, striking through the opening in the branches, fell across her. At this distance she was merely a white figure; but Kingozi saw her again as she had stood in invocation to the moon. As though she had only awaited his turning, she raised her hand in grave salutation and disappeared.
Kingozi was too restless, too stirred, to sit still. After a vain attempt to smoke a quiet and ruminative pipe he arose and began to wander about. The men looked up at him furtively from their little fires where perpetually meat roasted. He strode on through the camp. His feet bore him to the narrow lane leading to the village. Down the vista he saw flames leaping, and figures leaping wildly, too, and the drums beat against his temples. He turned back seeking quiet, and so on through camp again, and past the Leopard Woman's tent. His mind was in a turmoil. No perception reached him of outside things--once the disturbance of human creatures was past. His feet led him unconsciously.
It was the old struggle. He desired this woman mightily. That he had been totally indifferent to her before argued nothing. He had been suddenly awakened: and he was in the prime of life. But the very strength of his desire warned him. If he had really been on a hunt for ivory--well--he wrenched his mind savagely from even a contemplation of possibilities. Still, it would be a very sweet relation in a lonely life--a women of this quality, this desirability, this understanding, able to travel the wilderness of Africa, eager for the life, young, beautiful, tingling with vitality. In spite of himself Kingozi played with the thought. The fever was in his brain, the magic of the tropic moon was flooding his soul.
Some warning instinct brought him back to the world about him. His steps had taken him down the canon trail. He stood at the edge of the open plain.
Facing him and not twenty yards distant stood a lion.
The sight cleared Kingozi's brain of all its vapours. For the first time he realized clearly what he had done. He, a man whose continued existence in this dangerous country had depended on his unfailing readiness, his ever-present alertness and presence of mind, had committed two of the cardinal sins. In savage Africa no man must at any time stir a foot into the veldt or jungle unarmed; in savage Africa no man must go at night fifty feet from a fire without a torch or lantern.
By day a lion is usually harmless unless annoyed. Game herds manifest no alarm at his presence, merely opening through their ranks a lane for his indifferent passing. But at night he asserts his dominion.
Kingozi realized his deadly peril. The beast bulked huge and black--a wild lion is a third larger than his menagerie relative--looking as big as a zebra against the moonlight. His eyes glowed steadily as he contemplated this interloper in his domain. After a moment he sank prone, extending his head. The next move, Kingozi knew, would be the flail-like thrash of the long tail, followed immediately by the rush.
Nothing was to be done. The immediate surroundings were bare of trees, and in any case the lightning charge of the beast would have caught his victim unless the branches had happened to be fairly overhead.
The glowing eyes lowered. A rasping gurgling began deep in the animal's throat, rising and falling in tone with the inhaling and exhaling of the breath. This increased in volume. It became terrifying. The long tail stiffened, whacked first to one side, then to the other. The moment was at hand.
Kingozi stood erect, his hands clenched, every muscle taut. All his senses were sharpened. He heard the voices of the veldt, near and far, and all the little sounds that were underneath them. His vision seemed to pierce the darkness of the shadows, so that he made out the details of the lion's mane, and even the muscles stiffening beneath the skin.
And then at the last moment a kongoni, panic stricken, running blind, its nose up, broke through the thin bush to the left and dashed across the trail directly between the man and the lion.
African animals are subject to these strange, blind panics, especially at night. The individual so affected appears to lose all sense of its surroundings. It has been known actually to bump into and knock down men in plain and open sight. What had so terrified the kongoni it would be impossible to say. Perhaps a stray breeze had wafted the scent of this very lion; perhaps some other unseen danger actually threatened, or perhaps the poor beast merely awakened from the horror of a too vivid dream.
The diversion occurred at the moment of the lion's greatest tension. His body was poised for the attack, as a bow is bent to drive forth the arrow. Probably without conscious thought on his part, instinctively, he changed his objective. The huge body sprang; but instead of the man the kongoni was struck down!
Kingozi stooped low and ran hard to the left. When at a safe distance he straightened his back, and set his footsteps rapidly campward.
The incident had thoroughly awakened him. His brain was working clearly now, and under forced draught. The magic of moonlight had lost its power. Habits of years reasserted themselves. His usual iron common sense regained its ascendency; though, strangely enough, there persisted in his mind a mystic feeling for the symbolism of this missed danger.
"Settles it!" he said, in his usual fashion of talking aloud. "I'm on a job, and I must do it. Came near being a messy ass!"
He saw plainly enough that a mission such as his had no place in it for women--even such women as Bibi-ya-chui. She must go back--or stay here-- didn't matter much which. The call of duty sounded very clear. By the time he had reached the level of the upper plateau his mind was fully made up. As far as he was concerned the Leopard Woman had definitely lost all chance of going alone.
The frosted moonlight still lay across the world. It meant nothing but illumination to Kingozi. By its light he discerned a paper lying against a bush; and since paper of any sort is scarce, he picked it up.
At camp he lighted his lantern and spread out his find on the table. It proved to be a map.
A glance proved to Kingozi that it was not his property. He remembered a sudden wind squall early in the afternoon. Evidently it had swept the Leopard Woman's table.
The map was in manuscript, very well drawn, and the text was German. From long habit Kingozi glanced first at the scale of miles, then raised his eyes to determine what country was represented. After a moment he arose, took his lantern into his tent, and there spread his find on his cot.
For it was a map of this very locality!
Kingozi examined it with great attention, finally getting out for comparison his own sketch maps. The German map was a more finished product; otherwise they were practically the same. Kingozi searched for and found records of the various waters along his back track. Each was annotated in ink in a language strange to him--probably Hungarian, he reflected. At the dry donga where he had overtaken and rescued the Leopard Woman's water-starved safari he found the legend wasser also.
"Explorations for this map made after the rains," he concluded.
Here the Leopard Woman had written the German word nein! underscored several times.
So far Kingozi's sketches and the German map were the same. But the German map furnished all details for some distance in advance. This village was indicated, and the mountains, and plains beyond. The three practical routes were plotted by means of red lines. These lines converged at the far side of the ranges, united in one, and proceeded out across the plains. Kingozi counted days' journeys by the indicated water-holes up to eleven. Then the map ceased; but an arrow at the end of the red line was explained by a compass bearing, and the name M'tela. And, as far as Kingozi could see, the sole purport of the whole affair was not topography but a route to the country of M'tela!
Here was a facer! As far as any one knew, the country he had just traversed was unexplored. Yet here was a good detailed map of just that route. Furthermore, a copy was in the hands of this woman who claimed she was out for sport merely, and had no knowledge of the country. Yes--she had made just that statement. Of course she might be out merely for adventure, just as she said. If she were of prominence and influence, she might easily enough have obtained a copy of a private map. But then why did she pretend ignorance? She seemed never to have heard of the name of M'tela; yet this map's sole reason for being was that it indicated at least the beginning of a route to M'tela's country.
Could she be on the same errand as himself?
That sounded fantastic. Kingozi reviewed the circumstances. M'tela was a formidable myth, gradually taking shape as a reality. He was reported as a mighty chief of distant borders. Tales of ten thousand spears drifted back to official attention. Allowing the usual discount, M'tela still loomed as a powerful figure. Nobody had paid very much attention to him until this time, but now his distant border had become important. Through it a new road from the north was projected. The following year the route was to be explored. The friendship of M'tela and his umpty-thousand spears became important. His hostility could cause endless trouble and delay. Kingozi's present job was to lay the foundations for this friendship.
"You have a free hand, Culbertson," the very high official had said to him. "We are not going to suggest or advise. Choose your own men; take as many or as few as you please. Take your own time and your own methods. But get the results."
"I appreciate your confidence, sir," Kingozi had replied.
"You and that man Winkleman are the best hands on earth with natives, and we know it. Requisition what you want."
This woman was a Hungarian: she possessed a German official map. Could she be on official business? It did not seem likely. Women are not much good at that sort of thing in Africa. What official business could she be on? The same as his own? That seemed still more unlikely; but if so, why should they not work together? Germany and England had an equal stake in the opening of this new route. An amical Boundary Commission had just completed a satisfactory survey between the German and British East African Protectorates. But she had lied to him, and she had acted lies of apparent ignorance! Why that?
Having examined the subject from all sides, and having discovered it as yet incapable of solution, Kingozi, characteristically, decided to go slow. If she were on the same mission as himself, that fact would develop in due time, and then they could work together. If she were still on some mission, but a mission other than his own, that fact, too, would in due time develop. If she were merely travelling in idle curiosity--well, she ought not to lie!
For Kingozi had changed his mind. No longer was he determined that she must turn back at this point. Now he was equally determined that she must accompany him.
"I'll keep an eye on you, young woman," said he. "You pretend to be very eager to go on with me. We'll see! But now you'll find it difficult to quit this game. You may get more of it than you bargained for. If you are really out just for sport and curiosity, I'm sorry for you. But you shouldn't lie!"
He copied the map roughly; then returned it to the spot under the bushes where he had found it.
Next morning he announced to the Leopard Woman his changed decision. He was self-contained and direct. She smiled secretly to herself. She thought she understood both the change of decision and the brusqueness. One was the magic of the tropic moon; the other was the shy, half-ashamed reaction of the strong man whose emotions have controlled him. The proof--that she was going with him.
She was wrong!