Chapter XXIV. M'tela's Country
 

To the bewilderment of the Leopard Woman the pace of the safari now slackened. Heretofore the marches had been stretched to the limit of endurance; now the day's journey was as leisurely as that of a sportsman's caravan. It started at daybreak, to be sure, but it ended at noon, unless exigencies of water required an hour or two additional. As a matter of fact, Kingozi knew that he had done everything possible. If Simba & Co. succeeded, then there was no immediate hurry; if they failed, hurry would be useless.

Bibi-ya-chui noticed the absence of two such prominent members of the safari as Simba and Mali-ya-bwana, of course, but readily accepted Kingozi's explanation that he had sent them "as messengers."

The little safari for the third time crawled its antlike way across the immensities of the veldt. Cazi Moto managed to keep them supplied with meat, but at an excessive expenditure of cartridges. As he used the Leopard Woman's rifle, this did not so much matter, for she was abundantly supplied. At last the blue ranges rose before them; each day's journey defined their outlines better. The foothills began to sketch themselves, to separate from the ranges, finally to surround the travellers with the low swells of broken country. Running water replaced the still water- holes. Cazi Moto reported herds of goats in the distance. One evening several of the goatherds ventured into camp. They spoke no Swahili, but at the name M'tela they nodded vigorously, and at the mention of Kabilagani they pointed at their own breasts.

"I wish I had eyes!" cried Kingozi petulantly. "What kind of people are they?"

The Leopard Woman told him as best she could--tall, well-formed, copper in hue, of a pleasing expression, clad scantily in goat skins.

"Their ornaments, their arms?" cried Kingozi with impatience.

"They are poor people," replied Bibi-ya-chui. "They have armlets of iron beaten out, and necklaces of shell fragments or bone. They carry spears with a short blade, broad like a leaf."

"Their armlets are not of wire? They have no cowrie shells?"

"No, it is beaten iron----"

"Good!" cried Kingozi. "There has been little or no trading here!"

One of the goatherds went with them as guide to M'tela.

"Without doubt," Kingozi surmised, "others have run on to warn M'tela of our coming."

Their way led on a gentle, steady up grade without steep climbs. The hills, at first only scattered, low hummocks, became higher, more numerous, closed in on them; until, before they knew it, they found themselves walking up the flat bed of a canon between veritable mountains. The end of the view, the Leopard Woman said, was shut by a frowning, unbroken rampart many thousands of feet high.

"Then we are due for a climb," sighed Kingozi. "These native tracks never hunt for a grade! When they want to go up, why up they go!"

But the head of the canon, instead of stopping against the wall, bent sharply to the left. A "saddle" was disclosed.

Toward this the hard-beaten track led. Shortly it began to mount steeply, and shortly after it entered a high forest growing on the abrupt slopes. Here it was cool and mysterious, with green shadows, and the swing of rope vines, and the sudden remoteness of glimpsed skies. The earth was soft and moist under foot; so the dampness of it rose to the nostrils. Vines and head-high bracken and feather growths covered the ground. In every shallow ravine were groves of tree ferns forty feet tall. A silence dwelt there, a different silence from that of the veldt at night; compounded of a few simple elements, such as the faint, incessant drip of hidden waters and occasional loud, hollowly echoing noises such as the bark of a colobus or the scream of a hyrax. There were birds, rare, flashing, brilliant, furtive birds, but they said nothing.

Through this forest on edge the path led steeply upward. Sometimes it was almost perpendicular; sometimes it took an angle; sometimes--but rarely-- it paused at a little ledge wide enough to rest nearly the whole safari at once.

For an hour and a half they climbed, then topped the rim of the escarpment and emerged from the forest at the same time.

Immediately they were a thousand leagues from the Africa they knew. A gently rolling country stretched out before them with sweeps of green grass shoulder high, and compact groves of trees as though planted. For miles it undulated away until the very multitude of its low, peaceful hills shut in the horizon. Cattle grazed in the wide-flung hollows, and little herds of game; goats and sheep dotted the hills. The groves of trees were very green. Everything breathed of peace and plenty. Almost would one with proper childhood recollections listen for a church-going bell, search for spires and cottage roofs among the trees. Slim columns of smoke rose straight into the motionless air. The very sun seemed to have abated its African fierceness, and to have become mild.

Some of these things Kingozi learned from Cazi Moto; some from the Leopard Woman; each after his kind.

About a half-mile away a number of warriors in single file walked across the wide valley and disappeared in the forest to the left. They carried heavy spears and oval shields painted in various designs. A fillet bound long ostrich plumes that slanted backward on either side the head; and as they walked forward in the rather teetery fashion of the savage dandy these plumes waved up and down in rhythm.

"M'tela," said the shenzi goatherd waving his hand abroad.

They camped at the edge of a pleasant grove near running water. The donkey that the Leopard Woman rode fell to the tall lush grasses with a thankfulness beyond all expression. All the safari was in high spirits. They saw potio in sight again; and, immediately, long grass for beds.

Visitors came in shortly--a dozen armed men, like the warriors seen earlier in the day, and a dignified older man who spoke a sufficient Swahili. Kingozi received these in a friendly fashion, did not permit them to sit, but at once began to cross-question them. The Leopard Woman emerged from her tent.

"Stay where you are," Kingozi called to her in decided tones. "You must in this permit me to judge of expediencies. I forbid you to hold any communication with these people. I hope you will not make it necessary for me to take measures to see that my wishes are carried out."

She showed no irritation, not even at the "forbid," but smiled quietly, and without reply returned to her tent.

"Yes," said the old man, "this was M'tela's country, these were M'tela's people." He disclaimed having been sent by M'tela.

At this point Kingozi, apparently losing all interest, dismissed them into the hands of Cazi Moto. The latter, previously instructed, took his guests to his own camp. There he distributed roast meat, one balauri of coffee to the old man, and many tales, some of them true. These people had never before laid eyes on a white man, but naturally, at this late date in African history, all had heard more or less of the phenomenon. Cazi Moto found that the distinction between Inglishee and Duyche was known. He left a general impression that Kingozi was the favourite son of the King, come from sheer friendship and curiosity to see M'tela, whose fame was universal. For two hours the warriors squatted, or walked about camp examining with carefully concealed curiosity its various activities and strange belongings. Then all disappeared. No more people appeared that day.

Kingozi knew well enough that this was a spying party sent directly from M'tela's court; and that, pending its report, nothing more was to be done. Cazi Moto's detailed description of what had been said and done cheered his master wonderfully. By all the signs the simplest of the white man's wonders were brand new to the visitors; ergo Winkleman could not have arrived. If he were not yet at M'tela's court, the chances seemed good that Simba and the magic bone had succeeded.

Nothing at present could be done. Kingozi sent Cazi Moto out to kill an abundance of game. The little headman returned later to report the extraordinary luck of two zebra to two cartridges (at thirty yards to be sure!) and that after each kill very many shenzis gathered to examine the bullet wound, the gun, and the distance. They were immensely excited, not at all awestricken, entirely friendly. There was no indication of any desire to rob the hunters. Evidently, Kingozi reflected, they were familiar with firearms by hearsay, and were deeply interested at this first hand experience.

The safari remained encamped at this spot all the next day, and the day succeeding. Natives came into camp, at first only the men, hesitatingly; then the women. A brisk little trade sprang up for yams, bananas, m'wembe meal, eggs, and milk. No shrewder bargainer exists than your African safari man, and these soon discovered that beads and wire possessed great purchasing power in this unsophisticated country. The bartering had to be done in sign language, as Swahili seemed to be unknown; and no man in the safari understood this unknown tongue. Kingozi sat in state before his tent, smoking his pipe--which he still enjoyed in spite of his blindness--and awaiting events in that vast patience so necessary to the successful African traveller. Occasionally a group of the chatting natives would drift toward his throne, would fall into awestricken silence, would stare, would drift away again; but none addressed him. The Leopard Woman, obeying rules that Kingozi had managed to convey as very strict, held apart. Only in the evening, after the lion- fearing visitors had all departed, did they sit together sociably by the fire. The nights at this elevation were cool--cold they seemed to the heat-seasoned travellers.

There was not much conversation. Kingozi was lost in a deep brooding, which she respected. The occasion was serious, and both knew it. During the moment of decision the man's duty and principle had been the most important matters in the world. Once the decision was irrevocably made, however, these things fell below the horizon. There loomed only the thought of perpetual blindness. Kingozi faced it bravely; but such a fact requires adjustment, and in these hours of waiting the adjustments were being made.

Only once or twice did Bibi-ya-chui utter the thoughts that continually possessed her.

"It seems so foolish!" she complained to him. "You are making yourself blind for always; and you are going to be a prisoner for long! If you would go back, you would not be captured and held by Winkleman when you reach M'tela!"

But such expostulations she knew to be vain, even as she uttered them.

At about nine o'clock of the third day Cazi Moto reported a file of warriors, many warriors--"like the leaves of grass!" armed with spears and shields, wearing black ostrich plumes, debouching from the grove a mile across the way. At the same instant the Leopard Woman, her alarm causing her to violate her instructions, came to Kingozi's camp.

"They attack us!" she cried. "They come in thousands! How can we resist so many--and you blind! Tell me what I shall do!"

"There is no danger," Kingozi reassured her. "This is undoubtedly an escort. No natives ever attack at this hour of the day. Their time is just at first dawn."

She sighed with relief. Then a new thought struck her.

"But if they had wished to attack--at dawn--we have had no extra guards-- we have not fortified! What would prevent their killing us all?"

"Not a thing," replied Kingozi calmly. "We are too weak for resistance. That is a chance we had to take. Now please go back to your tent. Cazi Moto, strike camp, and get ready to safari."

The warriors of M'tela debouched on the open plain, seemingly without end. The sun glinted from their upraised, polished spears; their ostrich plumes swayed gently as though a wind ruffled a field of sombre grain tassels; the anklets and leg bracelets clashed softly together to produce in the aggregate a rhythmic marching cadence. Their front was nearly a quarter of a mile in width. Rank after rank in succession appeared: literally thousands. Drums roared and throbbed; and the blowing of innumerable trumpets, fashioned mostly from the horns of oryx and sing-sing, added to the martial ensemble.

The members of the safari were gathered in little knots, staring, wide eyed with apprehension. Upon them descended zealous Cazi Moto. Even his kiboko had difficulty in breaking up the groups, in setting the men at the commonplace occupations of breaking camp. Yet that must be done, in all decent dignity; and at length it was done.

The first ranks were now fairly at the outskirts of camp; the last had but just left the woods. The plains were literally covered with spearmen. A magnificent sight! They came to a halt, raised their spears horizontally above their heads; the horns and drums redoubled their din; a mighty, concerted shout rent the air. Then abruptly fell dead silence.

From the front rank a tall, impressive savage stepped forward, pacing with dignified stride. He walked directly to Kingozi's chair.

"Jambo, bwana!" He uttered his greeting in deep chest tones that rumbled like distant thunder.

"Jambo, n'ympara," responded Kingozi in a mild tone. By his use of the word n'ympara--headman--he indicated his perfect understanding of the fact that this man, for all his magnificence, for all the strength of his escort, was not M'tela himself, but only one of M'tela's ministers.

"Jambo, bwana m'kubwa!" rolled the latter.

"Jambo" replied Kingozi.

"Jambo, bwana m'kubwa-sana!"

"Jambo."

"Jambo, bwana m'kubwa-sana!"

"Jambo."

Having thus climbed by easy steps to the superlative greeting, the minister uttered his real message. As befitted his undoubted position in court, he spoke excellent Swahili.

"I am come to take you to the manyatta of M'tela," he announced.

"That is well," replied Kingozi calmly. "In one hour we shall go."