Chapter XX. Kingozi's Ultimatum
 

But she did not immediately answer this. She was on fire with a new thought.

"This is another of your--what you call--traps!" she cried. "You never intended to kill this man with the kiboko! You intended to make me speak--as I did!"

"That's as may be," he rejoined. "At least I should have tried how far he would have been faithful to you before telling what he knew--if you had not spoken."

"He is faithful--to the death," she asseverated with passion.

"I am inclined to believe you are right. But that is neither here nor there. I am waiting answers to my questions."

"And you shall wait," she took him up superbly. "I shall not answer!"

He shrugged his shoulders wearily.

"That is your affair. I must confess that I am curious to know, however, why you did not shoot me. You have a pistol."

"Your men took that pistol."

"But not until late this morning. You had plenty of chance."

"I could not," she said, her voice taking on a curious intonation; "there was no need."

"You mean since I went blind there was no need," he interjected quickly.

She hesitated whether to reply. Then:

"Yes, that is it," she assented.

Kingozi leaned forward, gripping the arms of his chair.

"I must tell you that my blindness is not going to help you in the way you believe," he said.

"What do I believe?" The animation of curiosity crept into her voice.

"For one thing, you believe I am no ivory hunter; and you know perfectly why I am in this country."

"Do I?"

"Do you not?"

"Well--yes."

"Why is it, tell me."

She pondered this, then made up her mind

"I do not know why not. The time for fencing is over. I know perfectly that you are sent by your government to make treaty with M'tela. And I know," she added with the graciousness of one who has got back to sure ground, "that no one could do it better; and no one as well."

"Except Winkleman," said Kingozi simply.

"Except Winkleman--perhaps."

"As you say, the time for fencing is over," pursued Kingozi. "That is true. And it is true also that you are not merely travelling for pleasure. You are yourself on a mission. You are Hungarian, but you are in the employ of the German Government."

She laughed musically.

"Bravo!" she cried. "That is true. But go on--how do you make the guess?"

"Your maps, your--pardon me--equivocations, and a few other matters of the sort. Now it is perfectly evident that you are trying to forestall me in some manner."

"Point number two," she agreed mockingly.

"I am free to confess I do not know why; and at present I do not care. That's why I tell you. You are so anxious to forestall me--for this unknown reason--that when smaller things fail----"

"You are of an interest--what smaller things?"

"Various wiles--some of them feminine. Delays, for example. Do you suppose I believed for a moment those delays were not inspired? That is why my punishments were so severe--and other wiles," he concluded vaguely.

She did not press the point.

"When smaller things failed," he repeated, "you would have resorted even to murder. Your necessity must have been great."

"Believe me--it was!" she answered.

He brought up short at the unexpected feeling that vibrated in her voice. His face expressed a faint surprise, and he returned to his subject with fresh interest.

"And when my eyes failed me, and you could have given me my sight by the mere reading of a label, you refused; you condemned me to the darkness. And, further, when I had a chance to learn my remedy for myself, you destroyed it. I wonder whether that cost you anything, too?"

He sat apparently staring out into the distance, his sightless eyes wide with the peculiar blank pathos of the blind. The Leopard Woman's own eyes were suffused with tears!

"I remember now something you said when you broke the bottle of pilocarpin," he said slowly. "I did not notice it at the time; now it comes to me. 'I have saved your life,' you said. I get the meaning of that now. You would have killed me rather than not have forestalled me; but the blindness saved you that necessity. You know, I am a little glad to learn that you did not want to kill me."

"Want!" she cried. "How could I want?"

Kingozi chuckled.

"You told me enough times just what you thought of me."

Her crest reared, but drooped again.

"No women likes to be treated so. And if you had your eyes, so I would hate you again!"

"I don't know why you want to prevent me from reaching M'tela, nor why you want to reach him first, nor why in its wisdom your government sent you at all. I'd like to know, just as a matter of curiosity. But it doesn't really matter, because it does not affect the essential situation in the least."

"You are going to M'tela just the same?" she inquired anxiously.

"Bless you, no. I have no desire to go blind. It's the beastliest affliction can come to an active man. And glaucoma is a tricky thing. I'd like to get to McCloud tomorrow. But still you are not going to get to M'tela before me."

"No?"

"I am sorry; but you will have to go with me."

"You have the force," she acknowledged after a moment. Somewhat surprised at her lack of protest--or was it resignation to the inevitable?--Kingozi checked himself. After a moment he went on.

"Somehow," he mused, "in spite of your amiable activities, I have a certain confidence in you. It would be much more comfortable for both of us if you would give me your word not to try to escape, or to go back, or to leave my camp, or cause your men to leave my camp, or anything like that."

"Would you trust my word?"

"If you would give it solemnly--yes."

"But to do what I wished to do--as you say just now yourself--I am ready to use all means--even to killing. Why do you not think I would also break, my word to do my ends?"

"I think you would not."

"But do you think I would, what you call--consider your trust in me more great than my government's trust in me?"

"No. I do not think that either."

"Well?"

"I do not think you will give your word to me unless you mean to keep it. If you do give it, I am willing to rely upon it."

The Leopard Woman moved impulsively to his side.

"Very well. I give it," she said with a choke.

"That you go with my safari, without subterfuge, without sending word anywhere--in other words, a fair start afresh!"

"Just that," she replied.

"That is your word of honour?"

"My word of honour."

"Give me your hand on it."

She laid her palm in his. His hand closed over hers, gripping it tightly. Her eyes were swimming, her breast heaved. Slowly she swayed toward him, leaned over him. Her lips touched his. Suddenly she was seized hungrily. She abandoned herself to the kiss.

But after a moment she tore herself away from him, panting.

"This must not be!" she cried tragically. "I know not what I do! This is not good! I am a woman of honour!"

Kingozi, his blind face alight, held out his arms to her.

"Your honour is safe with me," he said.

But he had mistaken her meaning. Step by step she recoiled from him until she stood at the distance of some paces, her hands pressed against her cheeks, her eyes fixed on him with a strange mixture of tenderness, pity, and sternness.

"What is it?" he begged, getting uncertainly to his feet. "Where are you?"

But she did not answer him. After a moment she slipped away.