Chapter XXXIII. Curtain
 

The sun was setting. In a few minutes more the swift darkness would fall. After delivering the astonishing volley the troops wheeled and under Kingozi's guidance proceeded down the forest path to the great clearing. It was the close of a long, hard day, but under the scrutinizing eyes of these thousands of proud shenzis the Sudanese stepped forth jauntily. Camping places were designated. All was activity as the tents were raised.

But now rode in the two white men who had closed the rear of the column, not only of the fighting men, but of the burden bearers as well. They were covered with dust and apparently very glad to arrive. One of them rode directly to the group of officers and dismounted stiffly.

"McCloud!" cried Kingozi.

"The same," replied that efficient surgeon. "And now let's see the eyes. I have your scrawl." He stumped forward, looking keenly for what he wanted. "Sit here in this chair. Boy!" he bawled. "Lete taa--bring the lantern. And my case of knives. No, my lad, I'm not going to operate on you instanter, but I do want my reflector. Hold the light just here. Now, don't any of you move. Tip your head back a bit, that's a good chap." He went methodically forward with his examination as though he were at home in his white office. "H'm. How long this been going on? Five weeks, eh! Been blind? Oh--why didn't you use that pilocarpin I gave you--I see." The officers and other white men stood about in a compact and silent group. A sudden grave realization of the situation had descended upon them, sobering their careless or laughing countenances. No one knew exactly what it was all about, but some had caught the word "blindness" and repeated it to others. Some one yelled "kalale" savagely at the chattering men. Almost a dead stillness fell on the clearing, so that in the falling twilight the tree hyraxes took heart and began to utter their demoniac screams. The darkness came down softly. Soon the group in the centre turned to silhouettes against the light of the two lanterns held head high on either side the patient.

Absorbedly Doctor McCloud proceeded. Kingozi sat quietly, turning his head to either side, raising or lowering his chin as he was requested to do so. At last McCloud straightened his back.

"It is glaucoma right enough," said he; "fairly advanced. The pilocarpin has been a palliative. An operation is called for--iridectomy."

He paused, wiping his mirror. Nobody dared ask the question that Kingozi himself at last propounded.

"Can you do it--have you the necessary instruments?'"

"Fine spade scalpel, small tweezers, scissors--and a lot of experience. I've got all the former."

"And the latter?"

"I've done the operation before," said McCloud dryly.

"Will it restore my sight permanently."

"If successful the job will be permanent."

"What chance of success?"

"Fair--fair," rejoined McCloud with a touch of impatience. "How can I tell? But I'll just inform you of this, my lad, without the operation you're stone blind for the rest of your days, and it must be done now or not at all. So there's your Hobson's choice; and we'll get at it comfortably in the morning."

He turned away and stopped with a frank stare of astonishment. The other men followed his gaze, and also stared.

The Leopard Woman stood just within the circle of illumination. So intent was she on the examination and on Kingozi that she seemed utterly unconscious of the men standing over opposite. Her soft silk robe fell about her body in classic folds; the single jewel on its chain fillet blazed on her forehead; her hair fell in its braid to her hips, and her wide, gray-green eyes were fixed on the seated man. A more startlingly exotic figure for the wilds of Central Africa could not be imagined. The expressions on the faces of the newcomers were varied enough, to be sure, but all had a common groundwork of fair imbecility.

She seemed to be unaware of even their presence. When. McCloud had pronounced his opinion, she glided forward and laid her hand on Kingozi's shoulder.

"I am glad--but I am afraid," she said softly. Kingozi covered her hand with one of his own. His eyes twinkled with quiet amusement as he looked about him at the stricken faces of his friends. She whirled on the gaping McCloud. "But you must have a care!" she cried at him vehemently. "You must save his eyes. I wish it!"

McCloud, recovering himself, bowed.

"Madam," said he with a faint, amused irony. "It shall be my pleasure to do my best in fulfilling your commands."

"It must be," she repeated; and turned to face the rest. "He is a great man; he must be saved. All this is folly. I have fought him to my best, for long, and I have used all means--good and bad. He conquered me as one who--what you call--subdues a child. And he is generous, and brave, and when the darkness comes to him he does not sit and weep. He is a great soul, and all things must be done!"

She was superb, her head thrown back. Captain Walsh was the first to recover from the stunned condition in which all found themselves. He bowed.

"Madam," said he, "in what you say we heartily concur. We add our urgence to yours. You must forgive our stupidity to the surprise of your appearance. Even yet my astonishment has not abated." He turned easily to Kingozi: "I hope you will afford me the pleasure of naming me to madam."

Kingozi arose to his feet.

"I do not know your name," he muttered to her.

"I am the Leopard Woman," she smiled back on him enigmatically.

Kingozi paused, embarrassed as to what to do. He could not use that name in an introduction to these men. She was looking at him mischievously.

"Captain Walsh--and gentlemen," said Kingozi suddenly, "I want the pleasure of presenting you to--my future wife!"

Her gasp of astonishment was lost in the chorus of congratulatory cries. It was all mysterious, profoundly astonishing. Much was to be explained. But for the moment each man was ready to believe the evidences of his own senses--that no matter how incongruous the fact of her presence might be, there she was, beautiful as the night. And every man facing her had seen the glory that shone from within when Kingozi had pronounced his introduction. Captain Walsh was speaking.

"This is an occasion," he said, "and the King's African Rifles cannot have it otherwise than that you become their guests. I see our camp is in preparation. We have nothing beyond the ordinary stores, but you must all dine with us." He paused, considering. "Say in an hour," he continued. "It must be early, for I do not doubt we must receive his royal highness this evening."

"You're right," said Kingozi, "and unless I miss my guess it will be an all-night job."

The travel-wearied men groaned.

"No help for it," said Captain Walsh cheerfully.

They pressed forward to shake the hands of this strange couple. The Leopard Woman carried herself with the ease and poise of one accustomed to receiving homage. She had drawn near Kingozi again, and managed to reach out and press his arm.

"Ye'll be married soon, I'm thinking," surmised McCloud.

"Depends," replied Kingozi, his brow darkening. "Part of it's up to you, you know," he added briefly. "A blind man is a poor man."

"We shall be married soon--now, if there is a priest among you!" cried the Leopard Woman vehemently, "As for poor man--pouf!" She turned to Walsh with an engaging smile. "And you, where you came, did you pass the people who live in the mountains back there, with a sultani who dressed in black----"

"I know," supplemented Captain Walsh, "very well."

"The sultani whose place has a fortified gate."

"Really? We did not get to his village; too much of a hurry."

The Leopard Woman shot a glance at Kingozi. He saw the triumph in it, and understood. The ivory stockade was unknown to any but themselves; still remained there in all its wealth awaiting the first trader. And that trader should be himself!

"Poor, indeed!" she whispered to him.

At this moment a roar of astonishment came up to them from down the slope. All turned to see Winkleman, the forgotten Winkleman, standing at the door of his tent. He was in pajamas, and his thick hair was tousled about.

"But how I have slept!" he cried, "and the English, they have come! Well, well!" He came out, stretching his great arms lazily over his head. They stiffened in surprise as he caught sight of the Leopard Woman. For a second he stared; then dropped his arms with one of his big, gusty laughs.

"Kolossal!" he roared. "The Countess Miklos! I was wondering! So he has captured you, too, has he!"

With a simple and unembarrassed gesture she laid her arm across Kingozi's shoulders.

"But yes," she repeated softly. "He has captured me, too."

At the tiny fire burning before the tent reserved for the headmen of the camp sat Simba, Cazi Moto, and Mali-ya-bwana. The bone of the saurian lay before Simba, who was bragging.

"Great is the magic of this bone, which is mine. It has brought us a long journey; it has won us the friendship of the great chief; it has revealed to us much riches in the teeth of tembo, the elephant, though that must not be spoken aside from us three; it has restored the light to Bwana Kingozi, our master; it has captured for us a great bwana and a rich safari; it has brought to us Bwana Bunduki[20] and many bwanas and askaris; it has brought to our master a woman for his own--though to be sure there are many women. Great is this magic; and it is mine. With it I shall be lucky always."

[Footnote 20: The Master of the Rifle--Captain Walsh.]

"A-a-a-a!" agreed Cazi Moto and Mali-ya-bwana respectfully.

From the darkened mysterious forest the tree hyraxes, excited by the numerous fires and the voices of so large an encampment, were wailing and shrieking.

"The dead are restless tonight," said Simba, poking the fire.