The Leopard Woman by Stewart Edward White
Chapter XXV. M'tela
They set off through the beautiful country in their usual order of march. The warriors of M'tela accompanied them, walking ahead, behind, and on either flank. The drums roared incessantly, the trumpets of horn sounded. It was a triumphal procession, but rather awe-inspiring. The safari men did their best to imitate Kingozi's attitude of indifference; and succeeded fairly well, but their eyes rolled in their heads.
The Leopard Woman sat her donkey, and surveyed it all with appreciative eyes. In spite of Kingozi's reassuring words, the impression of savage power as the warriors debouched from the wood had been vivid enough to give emphasis to a strong feeling of relief when their intentions proved peaceful. The revulsion accentuated her enjoyment of the picturesque aspects of the scene. The shining, naked bodies, the waving ostrich plumes, the glitter of spears, the glint of polished iron, the wild, savage expression of the men, the throb of barbaric music appealed to her artistic sense. In a way her mind was at rest. At least the striving was over. Kingozi had made his decision; it was no use to struggle against it longer. She had no doubt that now they were virtually prisoners, that they were being conducted in this impressive manner to a chieftain already won over by Winkleman. The latter had had more than the time necessary to carry out his purpose. Kingozi's persistence was maddeningly futile; but it was part of the man, and she could not but acquiesce.
They marched across the open grassy plain, and into the woods beyond. A wide, beaten track took them through, as though they walked in a lofty tunnel with green walls through which one could look, but beyond which one might not pass. Then out into the sunlight again, skirting a swamp of plumed papyrus with many waterfowl, and swarms of insects, and birds wheeling swiftly catching the insects, and other larger birds soaring grandly above on the watch-out for what might chance. This swamp was like a green river flowing bank high between the hills. It twisted out of sight around wooded promontories. And the hills, constantly rising in height, crowned with ever-thickening forests, extended as far as the eye could reach.
At the end of the straight vista they turned sharp to the right and climbed a tongue of land--what would be called a "hog's-back" in the West. It was grown sparsely with trees, and commanded a wide outlook. Now the sinuous course of the papyrus swamp could be followed for miles in its vivid green; and the tops of the forest trees lay spread like a mantle. The top of the "hog's-back" had been flattened, and on it stood M'tela's palace.
The Leopard Woman stared curiously. There was not much to be seen. A high stockade of posts and wattle shut off the view, but over it could be distinguished a thatched roof. It was rectangular instead of circular and appeared to be at least forty feet long--a true, royal palace. Smaller roofs surrounded it. Outside the gate stood several more of the gorgeous spearmen, rigidly at attention. Not another soul was in sight.
But whatever seemed to lack either in the cordiality or curiosity of the inhabitants was more than made up for by the escort. With admirable military precision, a precision that Kingozi would have appreciated could he have seen it, they deployed across the wide open space at the front of the plateau. The drums lined up before them. In the echoing enclosure of the forest walls the noise was prodigious. And then abruptly, as before, it fell. In the silence the voice of the old headman was heard:
"Here will be found the way to the guest houses," he urged gently.
The ragged safari, carrying its loads, plunged again into a forest path, walking single file, a tatterdemalion crew. And yet a philosophic observer might have caught a certain nonchalance, a faint superiority of bearing on the part of these scarecrows; ridiculous when considered against the overwhelming numbers, the military spruceness, the savage formidability of the wild hordes that surrounded them. And if he had been an experienced as well as a philosophic observer he could have named the quality that informed them. Even in these truly terrifying, untried conditions it persisted--the white man's prestige.
The forest path, wide and well-trodden, led them a scant quarter mile to a cleared wide space on the very edge of the hill, which here fell abruptly away. A large circular guest house occupied the centre point, and other smaller houses surrounded it at a respectful distance. To the right hand were the tops of trees on a lower elevation; to the left and at the rear the solid wall of forest; immediately in front a wide outlook over the papyrus swamp and the partly clothed hills beyond.
Their guides--for there were several--indicated the guest houses, and silently disappeared. The safari was alone with its own devices.
Kingozi's practical voice broke the slight awe that all this savage magnificence had imposed.
"Cazi Moto!" he commanded, "tell me what is here."
He listened attentively while the wizen-faced little headman gave a detailed account, not only of the present dispositions, but also of what had been seen during the short march to M'tela's stronghold. At the conclusion of this recital he called to the Leopard Woman.
"I am here, near you," she answered.
"You must be my eyes for this," he told her. "Look into the large guest house. Is it clean? Is it fairly new?"
She reported favourably as to these points.
"I am sorry, but I must take it over for myself," he said. "Matter not of comfort, but of prestige. You would do best to pitch your tent somewhere near. Cazi Moto, let the men make camp as usual."
"Very well," she agreed to her part of this program. Her manner was very gentle; and she looked on him, could he have known it, with eyes of a tender compassion. His was a brave heart, but Winkleman must long since have arrived----
She moved slowly away to superintend the placing of her tent, reflecting on these matters. It was decent of Winkleman to keep himself in the background just at first. Time enough to convince poor blind Kingozi that the game was up when he had to some extent recovered from the strain and fatigue of the long journey. But Winkleman was a good sort. She knew him: a big, hearty, bearded Bavarian, polyglot, intensely scientific, with a rolling deep voice. He must have had ten days--a week anyway--to use his acknowledged arts and influence on the savage king. Kingozi had said a week would be enough--and Kingozi knew! She sighed deeply as she thought of the doom to which his own obstinacy had condemned that remarkable man. Her eyes wandered to where he sat in his canvas chair, superintending through the ever-efficient Cazi Moto the details of the camp. His shoulders were sagging forward wearily, and his face in repose fell into lines of infinite sadness. Her heart melted within her; and in a sudden revulsion she flamed against Winkleman and all his diabolical efficiency. After all, this little corner of an unknown land could not mean so much to the general result, and it would be so glorious a consolation to a brave man's blindness! Then she became ashamed of herself as a traitor. Her tent was now ready; so she entered it, bathed, clad herself in her silks, and hung the jewel on her forehead. Once more the serene mistress of herself, she came forth to view the sights.
It was by now near the setting of the sun. The forest shadows were rising. Colobus were calling, and birds. Up a steep trail from the swamp came a long procession of women and little girls. They were all stark naked, and each carried on her head an earthen vessel or a greater or lesser gourd according to her strength. They passed near the large guest house, and there poured the water from their vessels into a series of big jars. Thus every drop of water had to be transported up the hill, not only for the guest camp, but for all M'tela's thousands somewhere back in the mysterious forest. These women were of every age and degree of attractiveness; but all were slender, and each possessed a fine-textured skin of red bronze. Except the very old, whose breasts had fallen, they were finely shaped. The rays of the sun outlined them. They seemed quite unaware of their nakedness. Their faces were good-humoured; and some of them even smiled shyly at the white woman standing by her tent. Having poured out the water, they disappeared down the forest path.
Thence shortly appeared other women with huge burdens of firewood carried by means of a strap, after the fashion of the Canadian tump-line; and still others with m'wembe, bananas, yams, eggs, n'jugu nuts, and gourds of smoked milk. Evidently M'tela did not do things by halves.
The customary routine of the camp went on. Supper was served as usual; and as usual the Leopard Woman joined Kingozi for the meal. The occasion was constrained on her side, easy on his. He asked her various questions as to details of the surroundings which she answered accurately but a little absently. She spoke from the surface of her mind. Within herself she was listening and waiting--listening for the first sound of shod feet, wailing for the moment when Winkleman should see fit to declare himself and end the suspense.
So high was this inner tension that she fairly jumped from her chair as a demoniac shrieking wail burst from the forest near at hand. It was answered farther away. Other voices took up the cry. It was as though a thousand devils in shuddering pain were giving tongue.
"Tree hyraxes," Kingozi reassured her.
"Those tiny beasts!" she cried incredulously.
"Just so. Sweet voices, haven't they? Some of these people must be wearing hyrax robes."
And indeed she remembered seeing some of the soft, beautiful karosses.
But now from the direction of M'tela's palaces arose a confused murmur that swelled as a multitude drew near. The drums began again. Soon, the Leopard Woman described, torches began to flash through the trees. At the same moment Cazi Moto came to report.
"Build up a big fire," commanded Kingozi. He turned to the Leopard Woman.
"This is likely to be an all-night session," he said resignedly. "If you want to get out of it, I advise you to go now. Not that you'll be able to get any sleep. But if you stay, you must stick it out. It would never do to leave in the middle of the performance. Some of it you won't like."
"What is it to be?"
"Ceremonial dances, I fancy."
"I think I shall stay," she said slowly.
In her heart she thought it extremely unlikely that the performance would last all night. Indeed her own opinion was that Kingozi would be a prisoner within an hour.
Kingozi settled himself stolidly in his chair before the fire that was now beginning to eat its way through an immense pile of fuel, where, during all subsequent events, he remained in the same attitude.
The Leopard Woman, on the contrary looked with all her eyes. The torches came nearer. People began to pour out from the woods. There were warriors in full panoply; lithe, naked men carrying only wands peeled fresh to the white; women hung heavily with cowries; other women with neither garment nor ornament, their bodies oiled and glistening. A deep, rolling chant arose from hundreds of throats, punctuated and carried by a sort of shrill, intermittent ululation. The drums were there, but for the moment they were not being beaten in cadence, only rubbed until they roared in undertone to the men's chanting.
All these people divided to right and left in the clearing of the guest camp, and took their stations. More and more appeared. The space filled, filled solidly, until at last there was no break in the mass of humanity except for a circle forty feet in diameter about the fire.
Suddenly a group of fifteen or twenty men detached themselves from the main body and leaped into this cleared space. The great chant still rolled on; but now a varied theme was introduced by a chorus of the nearby women. The dancers were oiled to a high state of polish, naked except for a single plume apiece and a sort of tasselled tail hung to a string belt. They clustered in a close group near the fire, facing a common centre. In deep chest tones they pronounced the word goom, at the same time half crouching; then in sharp staccato head tones the word zup, at the same time rising swiftly up and toward their common centre. It was like the ebb and surge of a wave, the alternate smooth crouch and spring over and over again--goom, zup! goom, zup! goom, zup!--and behind it the twinkle of torches, the gleam of eyes, the roll of the deep-voiced chanting.
Endlessly they repeated this performance. The Leopard Woman, watching, at last had to close her eyes in order to escape the hypnotic quality of it. In spite of herself her senses swam in the rhythmic monotony. All outside the focus of the dancers turned gray--goom, zup! goom, zup!--was it never to end? And then it seemed to her that it never would end, that thus it would go on forever, and that so it was just and right. The men were tireless. The sweat glistened on their bodies, but their eyes gleamed fanatically. She floated off on a tide of irrelevant thoughts.
Hours later, as it seemed to her, she came to herself suddenly. Kingozi still sat stolidly in his chair. The dancers were retiring step by step, still with unabated vigour, continuing their performance. They melted into the crowd.
Now a pellmell of bizarre figures broke out. They were bedecked fantastically: some of them were painted with white clay; one was clad in the skins of beasts. There was no rhythm or order to their entrance; but immediately they began to dash here and there shouting.
"It is the Lion Dance, memsahib," Cazi Moto told her in a low voice. "That one is the lion; and they hunt him with spears in the long grass."
The chase went forward with some verisimilitude, and yet with a symbolic syncopation that indicated the Lion Dance was a very ancient and conventional ceremony. These dancers gave way to a chorus of singers. For interminable hours, so it seemed, they chanted a high, shrill recitative, carried in fugue by deeper voices. The burden of the song was evidently an impromptu. Occasionally some peculiarly apt or pleasing phrase was caught up for endless repetition. And in the background, against the farther background of the undistinguished masses, those who had formerly carried on their performances in the full glare of front-row publicity and the campfire, now continued their efforts almost unabated. The impressive utterers of the goom-zup shibboleth, the slayers of the symbolical lion, carried on still. Indeed as the night wore on, and one group of dancers succeeded another, the homogeneous crowd began to break into varied activity. Each took his turn as principal, then fell back to form part of the variegated background. Each dance was different. Warriors fully armed clashed shield and spear; witch doctors crouched and sprang; women stamped in rhythm; the elephant was hunted, the crops sown and gathered, all the activities of community and individual life were danced, the frankness of some saved from obscenity only by the unconscious earnestness of their exposition and the evidence of their symbolism that they were not the expression of the moment but very ancient customs.
The Leopard Woman watched it all with shining eyes. The emotion of the picturesque, the call of savage wildness, the contagion of a mounting community excitement caused the blood to race through her veins. The drums throbbed against her heart as the pulse throbbed against her temples. She resisted an actual impulse to rise from her chair, to throw herself with abandon into an orgy of rhythm and motion. Perfectly she understood those who, having reached the breaking point, dashed madly through the fire scattering embers and coals, or who darted forward to kiss ecstatically the white man's feet, or who reached a wild paroxysm of nerves to collapse the next instant into exhaustion. She was brought to herself by Kingozi's calm voice.
"Sweet riot, isn't it?" he remarked. "They're working themselves up to a high pitch. It's always that way. You would think they'd drop from sheer weariness."
"How long will they keep it up?" she asked, drawing a deep breath, and trying to speak naturally.
"So it got you, too, a little, did it?" he said curiously.
"What do you mean?"
"The excitement. It's contagious unless you are accustomed to it. I've seen safe and sane youngsters go quite off their heads at these shows, and dash down and caper around like the maddest shenzi of them all. Felt it myself at first. It draws you; like wanting to jump off when you look down from a high place." He was talking evenly and carelessly. "Enough of this sort of thing will make a crowd see anything. Devil-worshippers for instance, they see red devils, after they work up to it, not a doubt of it."
"Thank you," she answered his evident purpose of bringing her to herself.
"All right now, eh?"
"Well, to answer your question; I've known dances to last two days."
"Heaven!" she cried, dismayed.
"But this is to prepare a suitable entrance for his majesty. We'll hear from him along toward daylight." He held out his wrist watch toward her. "What time now?"
Somehow the simple action seemed to her pathetic. Her eyes filled, and she stooped as though to kiss the outstretched hand. Never again would the worn old wrist watch serve its owner, except thus, vicariously!
"It is ten minutes past the twelve," she answered in a stifled voice.
"We must settle down to it. If you want tea or something to eat, tell Cazi Moto."
He resumed his stolid demeanour.
The dancing continued. Every once in a while women threw armfuls of fuel on the blaze. The tree hyraxes, out-screeched and outnumbered, fell into silence or withdrew. Above the stars shone serenely; and all about stood the trees of the ancient forest. Outside the hot, leaping red light they drew back aloof and still. They had seen many dances, many ebbs and flows of men's passions; for they were very old.
The Leopard Woman's vision blurred after a time. She was getting drowsy. Her thoughts strayed. But always they circled back to the same point. She found herself wondering whether Winkleman would appear to-night.
A few hours earlier than Kingozi had predicted, in fact not far after two o'clock, the wild dancing died to absolute immobility and absolute silence, and M'tela arrived.
He appeared walking casually as though out for a stroll, emerging from the end of the wide forest path. Central African natives are never obese-- comic papers to the contrary notwithstanding. Nevertheless, M'tela was a large man, amply built, his muscles overlaid by smoother, softer flesh. He possessed dignity without aloofness, a rare combination, and one that invariably indicates a true feeling of superiority. As he moved forward he glanced lazily and good-humouredly to right and left at his people, in the manner of a genial grown-up among small children. He wore a piece of cotton cloth dyed black, so draped as to leave one arm and shoulder bare, a polished bone armlet, and a tarboush that must have been traded through many hands.
"The sultani, bwana," murmured the ever-alert Cazi Moto.
M'tela wandered to where Kingozi sat. The white man did not move, but appeared to stare absently straight before him. At ten paces M'tela stopped and deliberately inspected his visitor for a full half-minute. Then he advanced and dropped to the stool an obsequious and zealous slave placed for him.
"Jambo, papa," he said casually.
His manner was perfect. The thousand or so human beings who crowded the clearing might not have existed. Himself and Kingozi, two equals, were settling themselves for an informal little chat in the midst of solitudes. His large intelligent eye passed over the Leopard Woman, but if her appearance aroused in him any curiosity or other interest no flicker of expression betrayed the fact.
As he heard the form of address a brief gleam of satisfaction crossed Kingozi's face. Whether it has been transferred from the English, or has been adopted more directly from the babbling of infants, "papa" is perfectly good Swahili. When M'tela addressed Kingozi as "papa" he not only acknowledged him as a guest, but he admitted the white man to the intimacy that exists between equals in rank.
M'tela was friendly.