The Leopard Woman by Stewart Edward White
Chapter V. The Encounter
Kingozi saw a tall figure without a coat, dressed in brown shirt, riding breeches, and puttees. The Nubian had retrieved a spilled sun helmet even before the stranger had scrambled erect, so the head and face were invisible. Kingozi's countenance did not change, but a faint contempt appeared in his eyes. The first impression conveyed by the numbers of the tin boxes and their bearers and escort had been deepened. Why? Because the riding breeches were of that exaggerated cut sometimes actually to be seen outside tailor's advertisements. They were gathered trimly around an effeminately slender waist, and then ballooned out to an absurd width, only to contract again skin tight around the knees.
"M'buzi!" grunted Kingozi, applying to the stranger the superlative of Swahili contempt. He did not know he spoke aloud; for it is not well for one white man to criticise another to a native. But Mali-ya-bwana replied.
"Bibi," he corrected.
Kingozi stared. "By Jove, you're right!" he exclaimed in English. "It is a woman!" He burst into an unexpected laugh. "It isn't balloon breeches; it's hips!" he cried. This correction seemed to him singularly humorous. He approached her, laughing.
It was evidently an angry woman, to judge by her gestures and the deprecating attitude of the Nubian. Kingozi surmised that she probably did not fancy being dumped down incontinently before an angry rhinoceros. After a moment, however, her attitude lost its rigidity, she gestured toward the dead monster, evidently commending the savage. He shook his head and motioned in Kingozi's direction. The woman turned, showing an astonished face.
Kingozi was now close up. He saw before him a personality. Physically she was beautiful or not, according as one accepted conventional standards. The dress she wore revealed fully the fact that she had a tall, well-knit figure of long, full curves; a thoroughly feminine figure in conformation, and yet one that looked competent to transcend the usual feminine incompetencies. So far she measured to a high but customary standard. But her face was as exotic as an orchid. It was long, narrow, and pale with three accents to redeem it from what that ordinarily implies--lips of a brilliant carmine, eyes of a deep sea-green, and eyebrows high, arched, clean cut, narrow as though drawn by a camel's-hair brush. Indeed, in civilization no one would have believed them to have been otherwise produced. In spite of the awkward sun helmet she carried her head imperiously.
"If you will ride in a hammock, you ought to teach your men to shoot," was Kingozi's greeting. "It's absurd to go barging through a rhino country like this. You look strong and healthy. Why don't you walk?"
Her crest reared and her nostrils expanded haughtily. For a half-minute she stared at him, her sea-green eyes darkening to greater depths. This did not disturb Kingozi in the least: indeed he did not see it. His eyes were taking in the surroundings.
The dead rhinoceros lay a scant fifteen paces distant; loads were scattered everywhere; the askaris, their ancient muskets reloaded, had drawn near in curiosity. From the thorn trees across the tiny grass opening porters were descending, very gingerly, and with lamentations. It is comparatively easy to ascend a thorn tree with the fear of death snapping at your heels: to descend in cold blood is another matter.
"Why don't you do your work!" he addressed the soldiers. "Do you want to catch kiboko?"
The startled askaris scuttled away about their business, which was, at this moment, to herd and hustle the reluctant porters back to their job. Kingozi, his head and jaw thrust forward, stared after them, his eyes-- indeed, his whole personality--projecting aggressive force. The men hurried to their positions, their loud laughter stilled, glancing fearfully and furtively over their shoulders, whipped by the baleful glare with which Kingozi silently battered them.
Only when the last man had picked up his load did Kingozi turn again to the woman. Although her bosom still heaved with emotion, it was a suppressed emotion. He met a face slightly and inscrutably smiling.
"You take it upon yourself to manage my safari?" she said. "You think I cannot manage my men? It is kind of you."
Her English was faultless, but some slight unusual spacing of the words, some ultra-clarity of pronunciation, rather than a recognizable accent, made evident that the language was not her own.
"Your askaris are slack," said Kingozi briefly.
"And how of these?" she demanded imperiously, sweeping with an almost theatrical gesture the miserable-looking group of hammock bearers.
"They are at fault," replied Kingozi indifferently, "but after all they are common porters. You can't expect gun-bearer service or askari service from common porters, now can you?"
He looked at her directly, his clear, steady eyes conveying nothing but a mild interest in the obvious. In contrast to his detached almost indifferent calm, the woman was an embodiment of emotions. Head erect, red lips compressed, breast heaving, she surveyed him through narrowed lids.
"So?" she contented herself with saying.
"It's the nature of the beast to run crazy," pursued Kingozi tranquilly. "You really can't blame them."
"Then am I to be thrown down, like a sack, when it pleases them to run?" she demanded tensely. "Really, you are incredible."
"I should expect it. The real point is that you have no business to ride in a hammock through a rhino country."
The woman's control slipped a very little.
"Who are you to teach me my business?"
For the first time Kingozi's careless, candid stare narrowed to a focus.
"You have not told me what your business is," he replied with an edge of intention in his tones. Their glances crossed like rapiers for the flash of an instant.
She turned to the hammock bearers.
"Lie down!" she commanded. Then to the impassive Nubian, "The kiboko! I suppose," she observed politely to Kingozi, "that you will admit these men should be punished, and that you will permit me to do so?"
"Surely they should be punished; that goes without saying."
"Give them thirty apiece," she ordered the Nubian.
"That is too many," interposed Kingozi. "Six is a great plenty for such people. It is their nature to run away."
"Thirty," she repeated to the Nubian, without a glance in the white man's direction.
The huge negro produced the rhinoceros-hide whip, and went to his task. To lay thirty lashes on sixteen backs and to do justice to the occasion is a great task. The Nubian's face streamed sweat when he had finished. The bearers, who had taken the punishment in silence, arose, saluted, and begun to skylark among themselves, which was their way of working off emotion.
"Askaris!" summoned the woman.
They came trotting.
"Lay down your guns! Lie down!"
A mild wonder appeared in Kingozi's gray eyes.
"Do you kiboko your askaris?" he asked.
She jerked her head in his direction.
"Do you presume to question my actions?"
"By no means; I am interested in methods."
She paid him no more attention. Kingozi waited patiently until this second bout of punishment was over. The askaris lay quietly face down until their mistress gave the word, then leaped to their feet, saluted smartly, seized their guns, and marched jauntily to their appointed positions. The woman watched them for a moment, and turned back to Kingozi.
Her mood had completely changed. The orgy of punishment had cleared away the nervous effects of the fright she had undergone.
"So; that is done," she said. "I have travelled much in Africa. I what you call know my way about. See how my men fall into line. It will be so at camp. Presto! Quick! The tents will be up, the fires made."
Her lips smiled at him, but her sea-green eyes remained steady and inscrutable.
"They seem smart enough," acknowledged Kingozi without interest. "Have you ever tried them out?"
"Tried them out?" she repeated. "I do not understand."
"You never know what hold you really have until you get in a tight place."
"And if I get in a 'tight place,'" she rejoined haughtily, "I shall get out again--without help from negroes--or anybody."
"Quite so," conceded Kingozi equably. His attitude and the tone of his voice were indifferent, but the merest flicker of the tail of his eye touched the dead rhino. His expression remained quite bland. She saw this. The pallor of her cheek did not warm, but her strangely expressive eyes changed.
"Bandika!" she cried sharply. The men began to take up their loads.
"I will wish you a good afternoon," observed Kingozi as though taking his leave from an afternoon tea. "By the way, do you happen to care for information about the next water, or do you know all that?" "Thank you, I know all that," she replied curtly.
The askaris began to shout the order for the advance, "Nenda! nenda!" the men to swing forward. Kingozi stared after them, watching with a professional eye the way they walked, the make-up of their loads, the nature of their equipment; marking the lame ones, or the weak ones, or the ones recently sick. His eye fell on the figure of the strange woman. She was striding along easily, the hammock deserted, with a free swing of the hips, an easy, slouch of the relaxed knees that indicated the accustomed walker. Kingozi smiled.
"'I know all that,'" he repeated. "Now I wonder if you do, or if some idea of silly pride makes you say so." He was talking aloud, in English. Mali- ya-bwana stood attentive, waiting for something he could understand. Kingozi's eye fell on the dead rhinoceros.
"There is good meat; tell the men they can come out to get what they wish of it. There will be lions here to-night."
"If she 'knew all that,'" observed Kingozi, "she knew more than I did. Small chance. Still, if she has information or guides, she may know the next water. But how? Why?"
He shifted his rifle to the crook of his arm.
"That bibi is a great memsahib," he told Mali-ya-bwana. "And this evening we will go to see her. Be you ready to go also."